Update; Russian soldiers in Aleppo attacked during video conference with Moscow
They’re there to start implementing the Kerry-Lavrov agreement but could find themselves in jihadi crosshairs
The Russian news agency TASS reports that Russian troops have taken up positions at the key Castello road in Aleppo:
A mobile observation point of Russia’s center for reconciliation of opposing sides in Syria has been established on the Castello road leading to Aleppo, a TASS correspondent has reported.
The information on the situation on the road during the ceasefire implementation will be received at the Hmeymim base on a daily basis. The operative groups of the Russian military have been also deployed in Hama, to the south of Aleppo.
Russian soldiers, most likely drawn from its naval infantry who are normally protecting Russian installations in Syria, are there as per the Kerry-Lavrov agreement on Syria’s future that was finally struck last Friday.
The deal among other things calls for the end of all sieges — ie it states that all encircled enclaves whether rebel-held or loyalist-held should receive supplies of food and medicine.
Thus the Russians are now taking over the manning of the critical Castello road corridor to rebel-held Aleppo. Until it was captured by pro-government forces in July this piece of land linked the rebel-held east Aleppo with the outside world. Now it is to become a ‘demilitarized’ zone allowing humanitarian supplies to flow in:
“This road is now the corridor for the exit of gunmen from the eastern part of Aleppo who decided to stop fighting and surrender their weapons. As part of the September 9 agreements between Russia and the US on reinstating the ceasefire a special focus will be on the Castello road,” said Sergey Kapitsyn, who is the deputy head of Russia’s reconciliation center.
“It will become a key route for delivering humanitarian cargos in Aleppo. Now works are underway here to equip the checkpoint of the Syrian Red Crescent Society through which the humanitarian cargos will travel to the eastern and western parts of the city,” he said.
In other words the Russians are moving in in order to start implementing the deal with the Americans and for the benefit of civilians in rebel-held east Aleppo — and not for the benefit of Syrian forces which are actually to relinquish a key piece of real-estate that they gained in a protracted and costly fight.
At the same time, albeit fighting has for the time being died down considerably since Monday, a number of rebel groups have also already rejected the ceasefire. Specifically 21 groups have issued a joint declaration explaining they welcome the end of sieges and end of air strikes by the Syrian air force but that they can not stop fighting.
The groups include relative jihadi powerhouses such as Jaysh al-Islam, Nour al-Din al-Zenki (of beheading children fame) as well as supposed goody-goody FSA outfits such as Division 13 and Division 101.
Additionally Ahrar al-Sham — the largest rebel group closely allied to and intermingled with al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra issued a separate declaration rejecting the deal and the ceasefire.
Now Kerry has stated there will be consequences groups which refuse to disassociate with al-Nusra. We will see if this will really be the case.
In the meanwhile if rebels are rejecting the Kerry-Lavrov deal that isn’t great news for Russian troops in Aleppo implementing it — just hundreds of meters away from these same rebels.
On the one hand the rebels must know that Russian presence in the end benefits their guys in east Aleppo and that attacking Russian troops risks a powerful Russian response (just ask Mikhail Sakashvili).
On the other it would probably be very emotionaly satisfying for groups who’ve been bombed by the Russian air force for almost a year now to be able to inflict casualties on the Russians — and might also net them prestige points in jihadi circles.
There are already some uncomfirmed reports that rebels are readying to do just that. Let’s hope they don’t come true and things remain calm.