Russia in Syria: Aid in one hand and bombs in the other

A women walking near one of curtains on Bustan Alqasr district in Aleppo city on Feb. 1, 2016. (Credit: Karam Almasri/NurPhoto)

Russia announced Thursday that it is working with the Syrian government to provide aid to civilians fleeing the city of Aleppo, which is currently under siege by Syrian armed forces. As if that weren’t enough of a contradiction, Human Rights Watch announced on the same day that Russia was helping Syria to use cluster munitions against rebels, which also happen to kill and injure civilians.

So while Russia and Syria are working together to help Syrians affected by the ongoing civil war, the same team is blowing them up. That’s why Thursday also saw a new call from U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura for Russia and the United States to figure out a deal that can, at the very least, decrease the amount of fighting in Syria and potentially pave the way for the end of the conflict.

“We are all awaiting and urging the two co-chairs – which means Russia and the U.S. – to expedite their own discussions on how to reduce violence,” de Mistura told the media. “I understand that there are several experts from the military establishment from both Russia and perhaps from the U.S. on their way to Geneva and probably, most likely, in order to discuss the so-called ‘devil in the details,’ which are the ones we have been asking to be sorted out as soon as possible.”

The pitchfork-laden details are the fact that the U.S. is supporting rebel groups, and Russia is standing alongside the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Division over a post-civil war Syria is a significant problem that handcuffs the global effort, including the United Nations, where both countries are permanent members of the Security Council.

Government forces surrounded rebel-held areas of the city of Aleppo on July 17 and have bombarded the region that is home to some 200,000 people ever since. As has been the case with other sieges carried out by the military, access to food has diminished causing shortages and rising food costs.

Civilians fleeing Aleppo will receive food and medical aid, said Russia. So will rebel soldiers who lay down their weapons. Assad announced that rebels who surrender in the next three months will be granted amnesty. According to Agence France-Presse, one of the supposedly open humanitarian corridors is closed – indicating that the ploy is likely more about winning Aleppo than humanitarian concerns.

That seems to be the case since the Syrian regime has had no problem carrying out attacks that kill civilians. Human Rights Watch said that it documented 47 attacks using banned cluster munitions, many of which took place near Aleppo. Such munitions create broad damage to an area, rather than the precise attacks. As a result, civilians are being harmed by the cluster munitions dropped by planes or fired in rockets.

“Since Russia and Syria have renewed their joint air operations, we have seen a relentless use of cluster munitions,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “The Russian government should immediately ensure that neither its forces nor Syria’s use this inherently indiscriminate weapon.”

Despite all of this, the U.N. still hopes that the U.S. and Russia can come to some sort of deal for Syria.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.