Russia suspended airstrikes on the rebel-controlled parts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Tuesday, in what some analysts saw as an effort by the Kremlin to break out of international isolation and end a deepening diplomatic spat with Washington.
After weeks of air raids on eastern Aleppo, “Russia’s ties to the West have suffered an irreparable loss,” Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based defense analyst, said in an interview. “They call Putin the ‘butcher of Aleppo,’” he said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian and Syrian militaries say they will observe a “humanitarian pause” between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Oct. 20 to allow civilians and militants safe passage out of the city.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said the eight-hour pause “would be a good thing,” but cautioned that “it’s a bit too little, too late.”
Spokesman Mark Toner, speaking to reporters in Washington, said the people of Aleppo “have been subjected to near constant bombardment and airstrikes” that have killed many civilians and leveled much of the city’s civilian infrastructure. He said the goal is “to starve out and to drive out the opposition and civilians who’ve held on there for so long.”
Earlier this month, the United States suspended talks with Russia over the Syrian war and said that Moscow was committing war crimes by engaging in indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Aleppo. That suspension came on the heels of what the West and Russia had seen as a breakthrough over Syria that could have led to a full-time military cooperation and a renewed diplomatic effort to end the five-year conflict.
“This is an attempt to somehow lower the pressure on Russia,” political analyst Sergei Strokan said in an interview. “This is an attempt to lower the degree of political tensions around Aleppo and soften the political blow on Russia’s image” since the massive bombing campaign started in mid-September.
The suspension of airstrikes is to be followed by a “humanitarian pause” on Thursday that will allow militants and civilians to leave Aleppo, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.
“Everyone really interested in the soonest stabilization of the situation in the city of Aleppo should take some real practical steps instead of political procrastination,” Shoigu said in televised remarks.
His announcement followed an earlier plan by Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy for the Syrian conflict, that envisaged a suspension of bomb strikes if jihadists and other forces opposed to President Bashar Assad agree to leave eastern Aleppo.
Russia and Iran have backed Assad’s government throughout the civil war that broke out in 2011. The war has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half of Syria’s population. Moscow’s airstrikes, which began in September 2015, are widely viewed to have saved Assad’s government from collapse and helped his troops regain some strategic areas.
Russia continuously claimed that its airstrikes targeted Islamic State militants, while the West accused Russian and Syrian air forces of bombing civilian areas and infrastructure, hospitals and humanitarian convoys.
Russian officials reject the accusations and retort by saying that the U.S. failed to distinguish between moderate opposition groups and radical Islamists and even sided with the radicals for the sake of toppling Assad.
Former lawmaker and pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov accused the West of hypocrisy for focusing on the humanitarian situation in Aleppo. “This is just a propaganda information campaign to support jihadists in Aleppo, where pro-American jihadists forged an alliance with Al Qaeda,” he said in an interview.
Russia has used some of its most advanced and lethal weapons in Syria, such as bunker-busting and cluster bombs, as well as incendiary munitions, international and opposition groups said.
Some 275,000 civilians are trapped in the city, many of them children.
Reached by phone in eastern Aleppo, two Syrian civil defense workers with the volunteer group White Helmets expressed more skepticism than relief over the pause.
One of them, Amar Salmo, said he could still hear warplanes overhead Tuesday.
“Civil defense … is still working, trying to get more than 20 bodies from under the rubble in many neighborhoods because of the raids yesterday and before yesterday, massive raids,” he said. “Neighborhoods have been erased completely. Now as I talk to you, the aircrafts are in the sky.”
Another worker with the group said he does not trust the Syrian and Russian forces to stop bombarding the area. “In a few days, they will bomb us, bomb everything and kill everything like yesterday,” said Ismail Abdullah.
In early October, Putin exacerbated the rift over Syria by suspending a key post Cold-War agreement with Washington over disposal of nuclear weapons accusing the US of failing to eliminate tons of weapons-grade plutonium and “unfriendly acts toward Russia.”
Mirovalev is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Irbil, Iraq and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
7:50 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from a U.S. State Department spokesman.
This article was originally published at 1:35 p.m.