The Syrian government, with Russia’s help, is driving its own people into exile

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Roy Gutman reports:  The airstrikes began just after midnight one week ago, as four or more warplanes criss-crossed the skies and unleashed missiles into the small town just northwest of Aleppo. The targets were private residences and apartments on the outskirts of Haritan, and then the town center.

The windows in Salah Hawa’s four-room house had already been shattered by an airstrike nearby last month. The latest blasts blew out the nylon sheets used to cover the gaps.

After two days and nights of attacks — possibly 300 missiles or more — Hawa, a 40-year-old English teacher, and his wife and four children, aged 5 to 16, fled to the nearby countryside in a neighbor’s pickup truck.

During one airstrike, his wife, Hasna, 39, lay down, and for an hour, “she couldn’t stand up out of fear,” Hawa recounted in a Skype conversation from northern Syria. “My children clung to me, crying, and said we are going to die.”

Hawa’s family, multiplied by 10,000, are the face of the latest mass displacement in Syria. They are now living in a village about 30 miles to the west, in Idlib province in a house shared with four other families. Tens of thousands of others displaced by the fighting headed to the closed border with Turkey, where accommodation was even more scarce.

It is the latest evidence of a dramatic shift in the war that began with the Russia air intervention last September 30. Russia claims to be bombing only “terrorists” and has told the Obama administration it is committed to a political settlement. But the real aim of the latest onslaught — which forced the United Nations to suspend peace talks before they even began — could be a lot more menacing.

The airstrikes cleared the way for Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, Iraqi militias, and Afghan Hazara forces, which are officered by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Syrian security forces, to make critical advances on the ground. Now Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is poised to surround Aleppo and besiege some 250,000 civilians living in the rebel-defended eastern sector.

If the military advances continue, Assad soon will also be able to block all military and humanitarian aid now flowing across the border from Turkey. But Assad is also in a position to drive millions of Syrians out of their country into Turkey, which will be hard pressed to stop them from continuing on to Europe. Mass displacement increasingly appears to be the aim of the military operation, and not just a side effect, humanitarian aid officials say.

“The Syrian government is driving its people into exile and the Russians are playing a major part, forcing civilians to Turkey which, caught between this violent exodus and pressure from Europe, risks being destabilized,” said Rae McGrath, head of the Mercy Corps program in Turkey and north Syria. “How can we talk about protecting civilians in the midst of this cynical disregard for the most basic humanitarian principles?” [Continue reading…]

Zachary Laub spoke to Noah Bonsey, senior Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group:
Do these sieges reflect the strategy of the Assad regime?

The regime’s military strategy, supported and increasingly embraced by its backers, is based heavily on collective punishment, [which is] especially important given the regime’s manpower disadvantage. This is one of the reasons we see such heavy use of bombing that is not indiscriminate so much as it is discriminately targeting civilian areas and civilian infrastructure. This is also why we see the siege tactics, which in some cases bring rebel[-held] areas to the point of starvation.

As civilians leave areas, regime advances can become easier. These tactics are also applied as a means of raising the price of resistance to the communities as a whole, so that communities pressure the fighters in their area to accept what the regime offers as cease-fire terms, but also, effectively, to surrender.

The Feb. 11 meeting of the International Syria Support Group [ISSG] came as fledgling peace talks in Vienna appeared to be at an impasse. Where do these efforts on a political transition stand?

The political process is based on the premise of U.S.-Russian sponsorship in which the U.S. is the point man rallying the opposition and its backers to a serious negotiating process, and Russia is to do that for the regime side. The reason this current round of the political process is surrounded by such skepticism is that while the U.S. appears enthusiastic—almost desperate—to get some sort of political process moving, Russia appears far less interested in making the process viable at this stage. Russia’s decision to escalate dramatically its aerial attacks on Aleppo—areas with heavy civilian populations—the very day the opposition delegation arrived in Geneva for talks was the latest in a series of indications that Russia is happy to see this political process stall or, potentially, even derail. [Continue reading…]

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