Hectic diplomacy for a safe path out of Aleppo
ANKARA / ALEPPO
AFP PhotoHectic diplomacy for maintaining a safe way out of Syria’s Aleppo for civilians and rebel fighters has been pursued by Turkey and Russia over the past few days, with a Turkish official criticizing Iran’s stance in the process but hailing Russia’s efforts.
“Iran is trying to obtain other things here,” the Turkish official told the Hürriyet Daily News on Dec. 16, after the evacuation of Syrians from Aleppo was suspended shortly after it restarted on its second day.
“We have criticized Russia for the bombing of civilians along with the regime. We criticized even when our relationship was at its best. But in this process [of evacuating Aleppo], Russia and Turkey have acted in mutual trust,” the official added.
“Russia has kept its word for the implementation of the evacuation agreement at the expense of opposing the regime and others,” he said.
The Syrian government suspended evacuations from eastern Aleppo just hours after they resumed on Dec. 16, saying rebels had opened fire on a convoy of evacuees at a crossing point with the enclave.
WHO told to leave ‘without explanation’
The World Health Organization (WHO) representative in Syria, Elizabeth Hoff, told a news briefing in Geneva on Dec. 16 that aid agencies and vehicles were told to leave the area without explanation.
“I assume the message [to abort the operation] came from the Russians who are monitoring the area.” Her team of nine staff in east Aleppo had no contact with Syrian authorities at the Ramouseh transit site.
“There is a blockage in the return of the seventh convoy securing the evacuation from Aleppo. We are trying to tackle this problem,” the Turkish official said. “Now Russia is also making an effort to open this blockage again.”
A Syrian official source said the evacuation was halted because rebels had sought to take out people they had abducted with them, and they had also tried to take weapons hidden in bags.
This was denied by Aleppo-based rebel groups, who accused pro-regime forces of opening fire on buses carrying evacuees from east Aleppo. Road blocks went up and a bus convoy was forced to turn back.
Fuaa, Kafraya causing suspension: Observatory
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, said the suspension was a bid to pressure rebels to allow evacuations from two government-held villages, Fuaa and Kafraya, under opposition siege.
“Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups have prevented buses and ambulances from entering Fuaa and Kafraya, despite pledging to the Turks that they would let the evacuation go ahead,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
Abdel Rahman said pro-government fighters were also blocking the route out of the city in a bid to pressure rebels to allow the evacuation of Fua and Kafraya.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency said around 800 evacuees were abducted while leaving Aleppo on Dec. 16. It said later in the day that the abducted people had been freed, while 14 civilians were killed in fire opened by “pro-regime foreign terrorists.”
7,500 civilians evacuated from Aleppo: Turkish FM
Despite a halt in the evacuation, around 7,500 civilians have been evacuated from the Syrian city of Aleppo since Dec. 15 when the process actually started, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told a meeting on Aleppo on Dec. 16.
The head of the Turkish Red Crescent said in a tweet on Dec. 16 that over 60 injured people from Aleppo were now being treated at Turkish hospitals.
Çavuşoğlu said there had been a “hold up with the latest convoy” but the evacuation was “not over,” adding that he had spoken to his Iranian counterpart, Jawad Zarif, “in an effort to overcome this.”
He said that he talked to Zarif a total of 10 times in the past three days; twice on Dec. 14, six times on Dec. 15, and two times on Dec. 16.
He said other officials, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had spoken to their Russian and Iranian counterparts, as well as the different players of the Syrian conflict.
Putin proposes peace talks for Syria in Astana
On Dec. 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was working closely with Erdoğan to try to start a new series of Syrian peace talks aimed at securing a nationwide cease-fire, adding that the new talks, if they happened, could take place in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, and would complement U.N.-brokered negotiations that have been taking place intermittently in Geneva.
“The next step is to reach an agreement on a total cease-fire across the whole of Syria. We are conducting very active negotiations with representatives of the armed opposition, brokered by Turkey,” Putin told reporters.
“That venue could be Astana,” said Putin. “If that happens, it won’t compete with the Geneva talks, but will complement them. Wherever the conflicting sides meet, in my view it is the right thing to do to try to find a political solution.”
Russian Ambassador to Ankara Andrey Karlov said on Dec. 16 that Turkish-Russian relations were back to “normal” after the downing of a Russian warplane in November 2015.
“The crisis after our plane was shot down has been overcome. We are back to normal relations. Putin has not spoken to anybody as much as he spoke to Erdoğan on the phone,” Karlov said at an international conference titled “Deepening Turkey-Russia Relations.”
He added that the crisis had “unfortunately” hit economic relations between the two countries.
Obama praises Turkey’s role in Aleppo truce
Speaking in a phone conversation with Erdoğan late Dec 15, U.S. President Barack Obama praised the role Turkey played in brokering a truce deal in Aleppo that paved the way for the evacuation of thousands of civilians from the besieged city.
“President Obama thanked President Erdoğan for Turkey’s efforts to broker a ceasefire in Aleppo to allow for the safe evacuation of fighters and civilians wishing to depart the city under the supervision of international humanitarian organizations,” the White House said in a readout of the call.
Obama and Erdogan also agreed on the need to implement a nationwide cessation of hostilities in Syria, the White House added.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım spoke to his Russian counterpart, Dimitry Medvedev, on the phone late on Dec. 15 to ask Russia to pressure Damascus to uphold the continuation of civilians’ evacuation from Aleppo, sources from the prime ministry said.
Yıldırım said he expected Russia would continue to use its influence over relevant actors in Aleppo to maintain evacuation operations are carried out without further security risks and damage to civilians. He also stated that Turkey would “take the necessary measures to improve human conditions and guarantee the evacuation continues.”