CAIRO - A 10-hour Russian-declared “cease-fire” in Syria’s largest city of Aleppo is due to come to an end at dusk Friday, coinciding with an ultimatum given to “rebel” militia fighters to evacuate the city through several “safe” corridors. The apparent political posturing comes as elements of the Russian fleet begin arriving off the Syrian coast.
Syrian state TV showed preparations at two official government crossing points from the rebel-held east of Aleppo into the government-held west of the city. Witnesses reported that no one appeared to be leaving the rebel-held zone, despite preparations to receive a large influx of evacuees.
Faris Shalki, Member of parliament from Aleppo, told Syrian government media that he believed the “rebels” were holding civilians as hostages and preventing them from leaving their zone of the city.
He calls the rebel fighters “mercenaries” and claims that they are “kidnapping” civilians and trying to make them pay a $300 fee to leave the east of the city. He asked rhetorically what Western countries would do if Islamic militants controlled parts of London or New York?
Rebel advisor Osama Abu Zeid told Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV, however, that he thought no one was entering government-held territory because “they have no confidence in those controlling the checkpoints.”
Abdel Hamid Sarafi, a Syrian government legal advisor, told state media that an amnesty offer by President Bashar al-Assad made several months ago to rebel militiamen to lay down their arms was still good.
He says that the official amnesty offer has been extended for three more months and that the government was maintaining its cease-fire (Friday) from 9AM to 7PM, despite the fact that rebel fighters were attacking Aleppo in the southwest of the city.
Syrian government tanks fired on rebel fighters trying unsuccessfully to advance in the southwestern corner of Aleppo in a newly-built residential zone called “Assad City. At least three rebel militia groups had been claiming to be pushing back government forces in an attempt to break the government siege of the east of the city.
The Friday cease-fire came as a Russian naval battle group, including the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, approached the Syrian coast. The U.N. did not take part in the cease-fire, insisting that it had not received sufficient assurances to operate safely, while German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier insisted that the cease-fire was too short to carry out humanitarian aid efforts.
Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, tells VOA that many people fear that Russia is going to escalate the situation militarily in Aleppo, while world media is preoccupied with U.S. elections on Tuesday.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the Russians want to take advantage of the forthcoming U.S. elections and escalate in Aleppo, and the arrival of the lone Russian aircraft carrier to the Syrian coast on the eve of the U.S. elections is no coincidence,” he said.
Khashan admits that he is not certain if Russia will succeed in pushing the “rebel” fighters out of the east of Aleppo “immediately,” but that he thought Moscow would try to tighten the siege of the eastern zone of the city which they control. Approximately 250,000 people remain in rebel-held eastern Aleppo, while over a million people live in the government-held west of the city.