Russian-Ukrainian crisis: how humanitarian corridors could work

BEIRUT — As more Ukrainian cities come under siege, concern grows for millions of civilians in the crossfire.

Russia has announced the establishment of safe corridors to allow civilians to leave, but there appear to be few takers. The escape routes led mainly to Russia and its ally Belarus, drawing fierce criticism from Ukraine and others. And Russia continued to shell some cities with rockets even after the corridors were announced.

Such tactics were common during the war in Syria after Moscow entered the war in 2015 to bolster President Bashar Assad’s forces.


Humanitarian corridors appear when a population is caught in a war zone, especially when a city or town is under siege. The idea is for hostilities to be interrupted for a period of time to allow civilians who must flee to do so through designated routes or to allow the entry of emergency humanitarian aid for civilians who remain.

The term was first brought up during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, when the UN set up “safe areas” for civilians. But the attempt was considered a failure since the UN was unable to protect the areas when they came under attack.

Humanitarian corridors have also been sought in the war in Ethiopia, where millions of people in the Tigray region have been under government blockade for months.


During the Syrian Civil War, the Russian and Syrian military pursued a strategy of systematically besieging opposition-held towns, villages and districts, sometimes for months or even years. The sieges rained destruction on populations, with airstrikes, artillery and rockets blasting residential neighborhoods, hospitals and infrastructure.

Eventually, in each case, the Russians and Syrians would offer humanitarian corridors, telling civilians and even some fighters they could leave. Most would then be transported to the northwestern province of Idlib, which remains to this day the last enclave held by the opposition in Syria.

Humanitarian corridors have been created for besieged neighborhoods around Damascus and parts of the cities of Homs and Hama. The biggest and most famous was in eastern Aleppo at the end of 2016, ending four years of devastating siege.


Russian and Syrian forces have often been accused of breaking ceasefires surrounding humanitarian corridors by continuing to shell besieged towns.

“When they talked about these humanitarian corridors or these ceasefires, we never believed them. How can you trust someone to stop who bombs you all the time? said Afraa Hashem, a 40-year-old activist who survived the siege of Aleppo and now resides in London.

She recalled how during a ceasefire in a humanitarian corridor on December 14, 2016, the house where she had taken refuge with her family was hit by firebombs.

There have also been instances of civilians or fighters detained by Syrian forces as they attempted to use humanitarian corridors despite promises of safe passage. In some cases, opposition fighters reportedly opened fire in corridors, either to prevent people from leaving or to trigger clashes.

Yet tens of thousands of people have taken the corridors out of the combat zones. They make up the bulk of the 3 million people crammed into Idlib province, which is surrounded by Syrian forces and still hit by Russian airstrikes.

“After four years under the bombs, they forced us to leave, that’s how it is,” Hashem said. “They didn’t save us. They put us in another bomb zone, Idlib.


Ultimately, they were effective in achieving the goals of Russia and the Syrian government: to regain control of opposition areas.

Critics say Russia and Damascus have also benefited in another way by carrying out massive demographic changes, eliminating large opposition populations, many of whom have been unable to return home.

Human rights groups and humanitarian agencies stress that under international law, every effort must be made to ensure the safety of civilians, wherever they are.

The siege plus humanitarian corridor tactic, they say, essentially gives residents a stark choice between fleeing into the arms of their assailants or dying in the shelling.

They said the offer also gave an illusion of legitimacy to the mass slaughter of civilians who would remain behind once the siege resumed in full force.

“It’s not like Russia can create a humanitarian corridor for two days and then say, ‘Well, we’ve done our job, now we can destroy everything,'” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch.


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Christi C. Elwood