News

6 December 2016

Thousands of people flee Aleppo

Signs that the dogged resistance to the Syrian Army and Russian airforce in eastern Aleppo may be crumbling have started to appear as thousands of people fled to areas under government control, either due to starvation, the continued air assault or the advance of Syrian troops.

The rebel troops retreated on Sunday, faced by the risk of being split into two due to Syrian army advances.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights initially said about 400 people from the Masaken Hanano neighbourhood sought refuge after it was captured by pro-government forces on Saturday, and that an additional 30 families fled to Sheikh Maqsoud, which is under Kurdish control.

However, the numbers fleeing the Syrian government advance has risen sharply, as up to 3,000 fled through the day.

TV reports from Masaken Hanano on Sunday morning showed workers and soldiers clearing debris against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings on both sides of a wide avenue. Masaken Hanano was the first district the rebels took in the summer of 2012, leading to the division of the city into a rebel-held east and a government-controlled west.

It was also reported that the Syrian army had retaken Jabal Badro, suggesting it was on course to divide the Syrian rebel enclave at its narrowest point of Sakhour. Damascus claimed the rebel forces in the north of eastern Aleppo were in mass retreat to avoid being split and as many as 2,000 civilians had reached government-held territory in western Aleppo.

The Observatory said those fleeing had come from al-Haidariya, al-Shaar and Jabal Badro. It claimed the offensive, in its 13th day, had seen 219 civilians killed, but these numbers may well be a big underestimate due to the number of bodies trapped in rubble, and the lack of functioning hospitals.

Reuters quoted Yasser al-Yousef, from the Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebel group, as saying: “The revolutionary forces are reinforcing their defence lines on the edges of Hanano, steadfast in the defence of our people in Aleppo … But the planes have destroyed everything, stones, trees and people, in a systematic policy of destruction.”

It appears that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is planning to take Aleppo before the inauguration of president-elect Donald Trump in January, taking advantage of the political vacuum in the US and outgoing President Barack Obama’s refusal to become directly involved.

Trump is appointing national security advisers who are more willing to work with Russia to keep Bashar al-Assad as Syria’s president, focusing instead on driving out Islamic State.

The likely election of François Fillon as the leading rightwing French presidential candidate will also strengthen the diplomatic hand of Moscow since he is regarded as willing to work with Putin to reduce economic sanctions against Moscow.

Last-ditch diplomatic efforts by the UN peace envoy, Staffan de Mistura, in Aleppo have failed, and the UN humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland admitted last Thursday that food supplies were running low, with no plan B. He said rebel groups had accepted the terms for delivery of humanitarian aid, but no parallel agreement had come from Russia or Syrian officials.

The Russian defence ministry said the UN “did not have reliable information on alleged agreement of the ‘armed opposition’ to delivery of humanitarian aid. There are no names, evidence or documents, apart from Mr Egeland’s words."

An estimated 250,000 people have been trapped in appalling conditions in Aleppo’s eastern districts since the government sealed its siege in late August. Many are now spending their days underground, as hospitals, schools and homes remain vulnerable to bombardment.

On the diplomatic front, a planned meeting in Paris called by the French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has not been confirmed and there was near silence from the US Department of State.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, discussed with Putin the loss of four Turkish soldiers killed in northern Syria in a Syrian airforce strike, as well as the humanitarian crisis.

In the UK, 120 MPs including Michael Gove and Andrew Mitchell urged the government to air-drop humanitarian aid into Aleppo.

Article by: Patrick Wintour, the  diplomatic editor for the Guardian Newspaper