Assad’s so-called “liberation” of Aleppo has destroyed and ransacked the city. More than 400,000 people have been displaced in a city that once had a population of 1.5 million. Attempts to rebuild the infrastructure will be a slow process. Much of the city was obliterated in Russian-aided bombardments that sought to show both the might of Assad and the determination of Russia to cement itself as his key ally. Any lasting ceasefire is likely to break down.
The UN’s efforts to provide humanitarian relief in Syria remain blocked by various obstructions including the need for permits from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, local governors and armed groups. A UN spokesperson said: “Russia and Turkey both said … that they will facilitate humanitarian access to all civilians as part of the cessation of hostilities agreement that they function as guarantors, and we will actively hold them accountable for their promise to help us.”
How accountable Russia and Turkey will be remains to be seen. After widespread reports that UN contracts for humanitarian aid were often being run by members of the Assad family and Ba’ath party functionaries, it is doubtful much aid will reach the civilians who need it.
Assad’s second front, against rebel-held districts of Damascus, has intensified since the fall of Aleppo. The river valley, Wadi Barada, just 30 kilometres north-east of the capital has been under siege, with 100,000 people trapped. 5.5 million people in Damascus now have limited access to fresh water as a result of Hezbollah assaults on the Ain al-Fijeh spring, the source of over 70% of Damascus’s water. Alongside many other atrocities committed in this war, this targeting of water resources is considered a war crime by the UN. Eastern Ghouta, to the east of Damascus, is likely to fall to Government troops soon.
The only notable areas not under government control could soon be those held by Daesh and the Kurdish YPG. Ceasefires exclude “terrorist groups” meaning that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham can be targeted. The former Al Qaeda affiliate is heavily embedded with other rebel groups and other shades of Islamists. Attacks targeting it are almost inevitably indiscriminate in their consequences, both on any other rebels and on civilians who still live in areas outside government control.
The support for the ceasefire from both Turkey and Russia is signs of a significant rapprochement between the two countries, following the downing of a Russian plane by Turkey in 2016. Even the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey by a member of Erdogan’s AKP has failed to stop collaboration.
Two of the largest Islamist groups which have Turkish government support, Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zinki, have kept to the ceasefire, but both have refused to attend peace talks. Turkey accuses Iran of failing to control Hezbollah and other Shia militias, who it blames for continuing many of the hostilities in the Damascus suburbs. Attempts by Russia in alliance with Turkey to downgrade the role of the US have also taken a significant step forward, with Turkey closing a major airbase that had been used for the US led coalition airstrikes.