Vladimir Putin's Defense Minister has announced that Syrian forces loyal President Bashar al-Assad will let civilians leave through three corridors, and rebels through another, to escape besieged districts of Aleppo. We have seen this movie before.
It is the same tactic Russian used when its air and ground forces were besieging Grozny, capital of the breakaway province of Chechnya back in 1999 and early 2000, while trying to flush out Islamic rebels from the city. This permitted Moscow to declare Grozny a free-fire zone, all the better to batter the already ruined city and deal less with the messy business of killing civilians and fighting door-to-door with insurgents.
From videos of Aleppo, large parts of the city are in ruins. About 300,000 civilians still reside in the eastern sector. The rebels are mostly grouped under an Islamic alliance known as the Ahrar al-Sham. The corridor suggests that the final assault, with Russian jet bombers backing Syrian troops, and pro-Assad Lebanese and Iranian forces, is on the way. Please note that the invitation to leave does not mean the bombing and artillery fire stops in the meantime. One day when I was in Grozny back in 1999, Russian artillery pounded the city at a rate of a shell every three seconds. Some reports say the Syria insurgents are prohibiting a civilian exodus from Aleppo.
In Chechnya, civilians fled Grozny through an open corridor and the city was largely flattened. Putin's government issued a leave or die warning. In January, rebels left the city, supposedly with Russian acquiescence. Their escape route, though, ran through a mine field. Islamist insurgent leader Shamil Basayev hit one and his right foot was amputated in the village of Alkhan-Kala. He escaped in a van through Russian lines and lived to fight on until 2006, when he was killed by the explosion of a carelessly handled mine. In the meantime, Basayev masterminded numerous terrorist attacks on civilians inside Russia--a preview, perhaps, of the possible ramifications for Syria.
Grozny's fall heralded Russia's victory. The city was eventually rebuilt and placed under the command of a Chechen client clan notorious for human rights abuses.
Assad's re-conquest of all of Aleppo--the government has long controlled western areas of the city--would boost his chances of staying in power. Aleppo is the north's commercial hub and Syria's largest city. It once had a population of 2.3 million, though hundreds of thousands have fled. It has already been badly battered by Assad and Putin's air force and now faces a siege that could totally cut off food supplies to rebel held areas-a frequently-used Assad starvation tactic.
All this going on while Secretary of State John Kerry tries fruitlessly to get Russia to stop bombing and help put a ceasefire in place. Having failed to forge a military coalition capable of unseating Assad and focused mainly on bombarding the Islamic State, the irresolute Obama Administration simply has no way to influence the course of the war. Kerry's diplomatic shuttling is cosmetic.
Aleppo's return to Assad will represent a defeat no only for US-sponsored (so-called) moderate forces as well as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both of which backed Islamist rebels in an effort to oust Assad.
Conversely, Putin and Iran stand to be big winners as the saviors of the Assad regime. Russia's burst into a player in the Middle Eastern will be affirmed and Iran's presence as a force within the region's Sunni-Muslim heartland and Tehran's strategic corridor to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, safeguarded.