Aleppans to Idlib: Out of the frying pan into the fire

The evacuation of Aleppo residents will inevitably lead to a long-term displacement in temporary shelters.

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    Since December 15 an agreement brokered between Russia, Iran and rebel fighters to evacuate besieged communities in eastern Aleppo and the villages of Foua and Kefraya has been under way, albeit faltering at times owing to infringements of the deal.

    While the humanitarian crisis of Aleppo is rightly under the international spotlight, the wisdom of the evacuation deal has largely gone unquestioned. This is unfortunate because in many ways the uprooting of Aleppo's residents to Idlib is a case of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

    Moving Aleppans to an already stressed area

    WATCH: UN passes resolution on monitors for Aleppo (2:19)

    The evacuation of Aleppans will inevitably lead to their displacement in temporary shelters where they are more vulnerable away from their home environment and families.

    Idlib province is already struggling to meet the basic needs of its residents under the governance of deeply divided rebel groups. The transfer of 50,000 internally displaced persons could overwhelm local coping capacities, leaving both local residents and the newly displaced increasingly dependent upon the humanitarian system, while they both remain at the mercy of the regime and its allies as they make up their mind as to their next move.

    An International Rescue Committee spokesperson last week said that "escaping Aleppo doesn't mean escaping the war. After witnessing the ferocity of attacks on civilians in Aleppo, we are very concerned that the sieges and barrel bombs will follow the thousands who arrive in Idlib".

    Given that the international community has failed to stand with Aleppo at its time of need, there is no basis for thinking that civilians caught in the crossfire of renewed attempts by Russia and the Assad regime will fare any better.

    To turn the concept of evacuation for safety into a full-scale eviction of an entire community is totally unacceptable. While rebels faced a choice in accepting or rejecting a deal, the same is not true for residents of eastern Aleppo, some of whom at least are reported to favour remaining in their homes.


    This is made all the more so considering that the international community increasingly sees Bashar al-Assad as the lesser evil in the face of the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front) which dominates much of Idlib province.

    A European diplomat is quoted as saying that "fighters had a choice between surviving for a few weeks in Idlib or dying in Aleppo".

    By extension, civilians evacuated to Idlib face the same prospect of buying time at the cost of their evacuation. Yet this stark warning presents a false dichotomy. There are other destinations that should have been explored for evacuees.

    Turkey has constructed camps for the internally displaced near its border within northern Syria, yet is allowing in only those in urgent need of medical treatment. The depravity of the situation calls on Turkey and other neighbouring states to act unilaterally to provide safe haven to displaced Aleppans.

    Meanwhile, the international community should have stood by the position where the evacuation is made to neutralise eastern Aleppo by offering safe passage to fighters and their immediate families, leaving their arms and ability to pose a threat behind.

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    Ideally this would have been accompanied by a monitoring mechanism to ensure that the forces of the Assad regime and its allies respect international law as they enter the east of the city.

    To turn the concept of evacuation for safety into a full-scale eviction of an entire community is totally unacceptable. While rebels faced a choice in accepting or rejecting a deal, the same is not true for residents of eastern Aleppo, some of whom at least are reported to favour remaining in their homes.

    How should Russia weigh in?

    WATCH: For refugees in Idlib, safety is a major concern (2:19)

    Taking civilians out of eastern Aleppo will diminish the likelihood of their eventual return to their homes. The evacuation and subsequent destruction in 2006 of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon led to a protracted displacement under which residents are still returning to their homes a decade later.

    Given that this double displacement occurred in a relatively stable context with high international support, the chances of a return to eastern Aleppo are vanishingly small.

    It is worse now because the fate of Aleppo's residents is tied to the destiny of other communities that will go through a similar ethno-sectarian uprooting.

    The Iranian intervention to tie the evacuation to the fate of Foua and Kefraya has complicated matters where there was an existing balance between the two villages and Madaya and Zabadani based on a gentleman's agreement between Hezbollah and the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

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    If anything, this shows that although Russia seems to have focused its mind on reaching a solution that meets its own objectives and has finally reached an understanding with Turkey, it has clearly underestimated the deviousness of the "deep state" in Iran, which hides behind excuses that it cannot control all of its militia on the ground.

    The Russians must tread carefully because where the war is fought on land and not in the air they will inevitably have less control over the situation.

    The United Nations Security Council's resolution that was unanimously accepted on December 19, establishing a monitoring mission, is a welcome development, albeit several weeks too late.

    Russia should now seek to play a proactive role in the monitoring to protect civilians and uphold its reputation in the region.

    Sultan Barakat is the director of Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

    Sansom Milton is a senior research fellow at the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

    The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.



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