BEIRUT (AP) — After months of fighting to encircle its opponents in Aleppo, Syrian authorities backed by Russia on Thursday offered safe corridors out for residents and rebels in the northern city's besieged quarters, underlining the government's determination to seal off the metropolis and force an eventual surrender by the opposition.
Many residents dismissed the offer, saying it presents them with an impossible choice between a slow death if they stay behind and possible detention if they attempt to leave.
The encirclement of rebel-held eastern Aleppo sets the stage for a drawn-out siege with potentially huge implications for the future of the armed opposition to President Bashar Assad. The military continued to consolidate its grip Thursday, seizing a district on the northern edge of the city.
"If Assad shows that he is winning Aleppo, and he's now also advancing on the rebels in Damascus, it could trigger a more dramatic shift by finally convincing opposition groups that they have lost the war," said Aron Lund, nonresident associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The announcement on humanitarian corridors was made by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and was followed by a general amnesty offer by Syria's President Bashar Assad for rebels who give up their weapons and surrender to authorities over the next three months.
Rebels and residents of Aleppo said they were deeply skeptical of the offer, and there was no sign of people massing to leave the besieged parts of the city.
"I will not leave. I will be the last man in the city," said Mohammed Zein Khandakani, a 28-year-old resident of the Maadi neighborhood of Aleppo who volunteers with the city's medical council. "I can't imagine ever seeing a member of this regime one more time."
But Khandakani, formerly a lawyer who was detained for a month in the early days of the protests against the Syrian government, said he was worried about his family.
A father of two — the youngest a girl of 9 months — he said despite the risk of maltreatment and even arrest, he is urging his mother, wife and sister to use the safe passages to leave the city. He said he hopes the Russian role and intense international attention to the humanitarian corridors proposition means the government would abstain from flagrant violations.
Fliers dropped over eastern Aleppo showed supposed corridors leading to government areas, but the media office for the opposition's civil defense search and rescue group in east Aleppo said no safe corridors have been opened.
Ibrahim Haj, director of the media office in Aleppo, said families would probably send their women and children through the corridors if they were deemed secure enough but not men.
"Most of the men — everyone here — is wanted by the regime," said Haj. "So, what amnesty?"
He and other activists reported continued fighting and said there were 25 air raids on eastern Aleppo Thursday.
For days now, Syrian government forces and allied troops have encircled the main rebel enclave in Aleppo, urging fighters there to surrender. The encirclement set the stage for a prolonged siege that the government hopes will eventually starve out and force the rebels to surrender, a tactic Assad's forces have used elsewhere, including in the central city of Homs. Homs, with a total population of 200,000, returned almost fully to government control in December following a three-year siege.
The U.N. says Aleppo is now possibly the largest besieged area in Syria, with an estimated 300,000 residents inside. Humanitarian groups have warned of a major catastrophe if the siege continues, while others slammed the offer as insufficient.
The U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said he was not consulted on the safe passages offer, adding that he is looking to see how the United Nations could coordinate with Russia on its plan to help civilians and opposition fighters who lay down their weapons outside Aleppo.
The U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien said "no one can be forced to flee, by any specific route or to any particular location."
Rights groups said opening safe passages won't avert a catastrophe and does not give Syrian and Russian forces carte blanche to further blockade the opposition-controlled territory.
"The fact that you provide this option doesn't mean that the people who stay behind are legitimate military targets," said Nadim Houry, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in comments to The Associated Press.
Khandakani said life has progressively gotten harder under the 10-day old siege with bread and water shortages and electricity finally going out Wednesday.
"The next 48 hours are fateful for the whole revolution," he said via Whatsapp.
Youssef Rahal, a lawyer from Aleppo who left the city 10 days ago but remains in touch with people inside, said there is no way to bring in vegetables or diesel, which rebel-held areas used to buy from the market and transport through the now blockaded Castello road.
This has impacted bread production. "It means some people are getting only a quarter loaf of bread a day," he said.
Shoigu said in televised comments that President Vladimir Putin has ordered a "large-scale humanitarian operation" that will be launched outside Aleppo to help civilians as well as allow fighters who wanted to lay down the arms to surrender.
He said three corridors will be open for civilians and fighters who lay down their arms and a fourth corridor will provide fighters a "safe exit with weapons."
Bahaa Halabi, an opposition media activist inside Aleppo, said there are no corridors out of east Aleppo and even if there were, he would not take them.
"Definitely not. We will not surrender ourselves to the criminals. They are killing us every day. Slaughtering us, starving us, and besieging civilians," he said, speaking from the city via Skype.
Assad has issued amnesty offers several times during Syria's civil war, now in its sixth year. The latest offer, like those before it, is largely seen by opposition fighters as a publicity stunt and psychological warfare against the rebels. More than a quarter of a million people have died and millions have been displaced since March 2011, when Syria's conflict erupted.
Lund said if Assad cements his hold on Aleppo through a siege or even by retaking it in part or in full, "that could be the moment when certain foreign backers of the rebellion decide to call it a day."
"It is not realistic to expect countries like Turkey or Saudi Arabia — never mind the United States — to first let the rebels lose Aleppo and then rally the force needed for them to take it back."
"When it's gone, it's gone," he said.
Khandakani said the offensive and siege is depriving him of his "brief feelings of independence and freedom" living in the part of the city under rebel control since 2012.
"I am still waiting for a miracle. Something extraordinary, like the rebels for instance managing to open a corridor for us toward the liberated rural areas," he said.