Syria Outlines Plans for Conquest of Aleppo, Backed by Russian Power

CreditCreditAbdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian government and its powerful Russian allies laid out a road map on Thursday for subduing the rebel-held districts of the city of Aleppo by opening corridors for civilians to flee and offering amnesty to insurgents who lay down their arms.

But residents and rebel fighters remained deeply skeptical of those offers, while aid groups warned of a tightening siege that could increase the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people.

Control of Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city before the civil war began five years ago, has been a main objective of the conflict’s combatants. The city has been divided since 2012, with government forces controlling the western half and rebels holding districts in the east.

But Russia’s military intervention has provided an edge to the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, allowing them to cut off access to the city’s rebel-held areas, while also making life inside them worse through shelling and airstrikes against markets, bakeries and medical facilities — leaving entire neighborhoods in ruins.

Four hospitals have been struck and scores of civilians killed in the last week, according to monitoring groups. Rebel forces also use these neighborhoods to stage attacks that have killed civilians in government-held territory.

The fall of eastern Aleppo to government forces would be a major turning point in the war and would solidify Russia’s place as the most prominent foreign power involved in the conflict, which years of international diplomacy have failed to end.

The new government plan was presented on Thursday in coordinated announcements from Moscow and Damascus, along with airdrops over Aleppo of small food packs and maps indicating the escape routes.

The Russian defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, said three routes out of eastern Aleppo would be opened for civilians, who would be given food and medical care. A fourth route would be opened for armed insurgents, Mr. Shoigu said.

Mr. Assad issued a three-month amnesty for insurgents who turn themselves in, lay down their arms and release any captives, according to the Syrian state news agency, SANA. The Syrian Army also sent text messages calling on rebels to surrender and expel foreign fighters from their midst.

But many Syrians, Western diplomats and international aid groups doubted the sincerity of what Russia termed a “large-scale humanitarian operation,” contending that Russia had previously shown little concern for the plight of civilians in rebel-held areas and that the Syrian government had frequently employed brutal siege tactics against its foes.

The United Nations, which has tried to broker talks between the warring sides and facilitate aid delivery, was not consulted about the plan and so was unsure whether it could be considered a “humanitarian” move, said Staffan de Mistura, the global body’s envoy for Syria. He said that Russian, and perhaps American, military officials were heading to Geneva to discuss the plan.

Few residents of eastern Aleppo said they expected good treatment if they accepted the government’s offer.

Farida, a doctor in an Aleppo hospital who gave only her first name for safety reasons, noted that all the passages would take civilians to government-controlled areas. She said she feared that surrendering to government forces could mean either death or imprisonment.

She acknowledged, however, that some civilians want to leave.

Aid groups have been warning of an impending siege, and with it a humanitarian crisis, after government forces cut the last road connecting Aleppo’s eastern districts to rebel-held areas to the north.

Zaher Azzaher, an activist in Aleppo, said that residents had begun to feel the pinch; one of his neighbors had acquired two barrels of fuel and scores of people had lined up to get a share, he said.

“People are fighting over two bags of eggplants,” he said. “I don’t know how these eggplants managed to find their way here.”

He added that some residents hesitated to eat the food packs dropped from the air, out of fear that they might be poisoned.

The announcement of the exit corridors left other residents debating whether to leave.

“We have this discussion here every single minute: to leave or not to leave,” said Luay Barakat, a photographer in eastern Aleppo. He was trying to convince others to stay, he said, so that the government could not argue that all the civilians had fled and only rebels remained.

“If you leave, the regime will have the excuse to bomb us more,” he said he told other residents.

It remained unclear how the United States and other international powers would respond to the Syrian-Russian plan. The American government has called on Mr. Assad to step down and has provided limited military aid to some rebel groups. Its priority, however, is to weaken the jihadists of the Islamic State, who have no notable presence in Aleppo but control territory farther east.

Amnesty International criticized the plan, saying that allowing civilians to leave Aleppo was not enough, that pro-government forces also needed to let aid in.

“Providing safe routes for those civilians who wish to flee Aleppo city will not avert a humanitarian catastrophe,” the group said in a statement. “It is not a substitute for allowing impartial humanitarian relief for civilians who remain in opposition-held areas of the city or other besieged areas, many of whom will be skeptical about government promises.”

The impending siege of Aleppo recalled the Syrian government’s seizure of rebel-held neighborhoods in the city of Homs in 2014, when its forces surrounded the area and bombarded it while calling on civilians to leave.

It took more than two years to fully subjugate the city’s rebels, leaving entire districts in ruins. The rebel-held area in Aleppo is much larger, with many more fighters and civilians, so the siege there could take longer and exact a greater human toll.

Also on Thursday, the leader of the Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, said the group was reforming itself under a new name and would have “no relationship with any outside party.”

In a video message online, the leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, said the move sought to keep Russia and the United States from bombing Syria’s rebels by removing what he called the “excuse” that they were linked to Al Qaeda. He renamed the group the Levant Conquest Front, but announced no changes in its ideology.

James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, dismissed the name change as a “P.R. move.’’ Mr. Clapper, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, said the group was trying to attract more moderate rebel elements and avoid airstrikes.

Noah Bonsey, a Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the name change would fail to convince Russia as well as the United States that the group had changed.

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Maher Samaan from Paris, Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, Eric Schmitt from Aspen, Co., and Mark Mazzetti from Washington.

A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 6 of the New York edition with the headline: Syria Plans Aleppo Conquest, Backed by Russian Power. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe