6 December 2016

Aleppo War Draws to a close


Civilians in Aleppo’s decimated rebel-held neighborhoods said Monday their situation is growing increasingly desperate as signs mount that the opposition in the city faces potential collapse from the Syrian regime’s latest onslaught.

Rebels in Aleppo estimate that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and their allies now hold some 60% of the territory in the city the opposition controlled just over a week ago, though the situation remains fluid and difficult to assess.

The mounting defeats are causing despair among civilians and fighters. Even as rebels reported retaking a neighborhood from Mr. Assad’s Russian-backed forces and allied foreign Shiite Muslim militias on Monday, some civilians said they had lost hope that rebels could defend their foothold in Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city.

“The opposition has been broken, and the people are dying. We want to leave, we want negotiations,” said Baraa Omar, an engineer-turned-nurse, a day after surviving what she called a barrel-bomb attack on the field hospital in which she worked. “We’re exhausted and we need to save those who are left.”

More than 600 people have been killed in Aleppo city’s rebel-held areas in the nearly three weeks since the renewed aerial offensive began after a period of relative calm, according to the civil-defense group known as the White Helmets, the only emergency responders in opposition areas.

Mortar fire from rebels has since killed dozens of others in the city’s government-held west, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Civilian leaders in opposition neighborhoods last week formed a negotiating committee in order to begin talks with the regime to reach a brokered agreement to end the current onslaught. But committee members said they have yet to contact the regime as the situation in Aleppo remained in flux.

Such a deal could involve the evacuation of civilian and rebel fighters, followed by the regime’s takeover of the entire city, similar to other deals brokered by the government and opposition in areas under siege near the capital, Damascus.

An escape corridor connecting east Aleppo to the city’s safer government-held side has been blocked by advancing regime forces, residents said Monday. Some 40 people died last week as they were targeted by regime strikes while trying to leave the east.

With the corridor closed, the only option for civilians in the east is to move deeper into rebel-held neighborhoods, further from intense front line fighting but still susceptible to airstrikes, residents said. Residents reported dwindling food supplies and few sources of heat in increasingly cold weather.

Negotiations to bring aid into besieged parts of the city are ongoing between Russia and Turkey, which supports Syria’s opposition, rebels have said. The United Nations also continues to pressure Mr. Assad to allow humanitarian access.

“Rebels are thinking of leaving as well because they have become exhausted [by] the situation,” said Mohammad Al-Sheikh, a member of one of numerous rebel factions in Aleppo. “Their spirits are low. They are in despair over not being able to break the siege.”

Some rebels have joined the estimated 30,000 people who fled into regime-held areas last week.

Ibrahim Hamo, a military commander with the rebel Ahrar Syria faction, said two of his own fighters packed up and left the rebel areas to accompany their families to safety. But just days after departing, they messaged telling Mr. Hamo that they had been forcefully conscripted into the regime forces.

“[They] said, ‘We have been conscripted and we are in front of you on the other side of the front line,’” Mr. Hamo said.

Such reports are enough for some men in the east to send their families to safer areas while remaining behind despite the bombardment, residents and rebels said.