Tens of thousands of people are trapped again in rebel-held parts of Aleppo, after the agreement to evacuate them in return to the rebels’ surrender was suspended again.
After months of crippling siege, starvation policy, daily bombardment, fierce clashes and bloody massacres the Assad regime and its allies were able to oblige the rebels in Aleppo to surrender and make an agreement to leave the area they have been holding since 2012 after losing more than 90% of it.
The ceasefire agreement was a result of talks between Russia and Turkey.
As part of an agreement between Turkey and Russia, tens of thousands of rebels and civilians were supposed to be evacuated from eastern Aleppo to rebel-held Idlib, allowing the Assad regime to take full control of the city after years of fighting.
By taking full control of Aleppo, Assad has proved the power of his military coalition, aided by Russia’s air force and an array of Shi’ite militias backed by Iran after his rule was close to ending after major losses in 2015.
On Wednesday morning, buses and ambulances were brought to evacuate rebel fighters and their families – only to be turned away shortly afterward as the ceasefire fell apart and the bombardment was resumed again.
However, the bombardment stopped at night and the agreement was resumed to evacuate the rebels and civilians on Thursday.
The civilians evacuation was continued until Friday morning when the convoy was obstructed by militias loyal to Assad regime.
Civilians evacuation suspended
the government-run SANA news agency reported that more than 8,000 residents of eastern Aleppo, among them fighters, had been evacuated until Friday morning.
The evacuation was then suspended after group leaving east Aleppo was stopped and attacked by Iranian-backed militias before being sent back.
“According to several sources, an Iranian-backed militia blocked a road that the evacuees would be using to reach the Aleppo countryside. It then started firing,” al-Jazeera reported.
“According to the reports, they were protesting against this evacuation deal, which would see the villages of Fua and Kefraya evacuated in a similar way east Aleppo was.”
— IRT (@InsRepTeam) December 17, 2016
Four people who were part of a convoy evacuating the besieged districts of east Aleppo were killed by Syrian government forces.
Two men, who were part of the group, also said the entire convoy was briefly detained and that security forces opened fire on evacuees before forcing them to return to the war-torn city.
“They forced us out of the vehicles, forced us to lay flat on the ground, stripped us of our clothes and then we heard gunfire,” one of the men said.
“When we looked up, we noticed three or four people were killed.”
Zouhir al Shimale, an independent journalist in east Aleppo, was part of the convoy that was held up.
“They took us after we reached regime areas, handcuffed us, killed four, and told us its payback. Then we came back,” he said on Twitter.
In another tweet, he said militias robbed evacuees “of all their money” before blocking them.
We're around 1000 they took us after we reached regime's areas,handcuffs us,killed 4 & told us that it's pay back then we came back#Aleppo
— Zouhir_AlShimale (@ZouhirAlShimale) December 16, 2016
— Ahmad Alkhatib (@AhmadAlkhtiib) December 16, 2016
“People were outside in the street overnight,” he added on Friday morning, adding that the temperature had dipped below zero degrees Celsius in the city. “Thousands are still waiting out here.”
An analyst described the situation in east Aleppo as “desperate”, before adding “a lot of the residents were scared to come out of their houses, they are very scared about moving independently into government-controlled areas”.
“Now the people are afraid and they are running away from the meeting point where they were supposed to gather in order to take the buses out of the besieged east Aleppo districts, they are in a state of horror and shock,” other journalist added.
— Zouhir_AlShimale (@ZouhirAlShimale) December 17, 2016
— Lina shamy (@Linashamy) December 17, 2016
The choice of leaving the city is a tragedy for Aleppo’s civilians, who watched their dreams in a free life being taken away, watched their loved ones die one after another, and were finally forced to evacuate their homes to be refugees in their own country.
“We will always remember and never forget how the criminals of the world forced Aleppo’s people to choose between two options, collective death or collective forced displacement, and we chose the lesser of the two crimes,” said one activist in a besieged opposition-held district.
The civilians in Aleppo lived through all kinds of fear in the past days. Fear of death in the hell their neighborhoods were turned into, fear of being arrested and tortured after fleeing to the regime-controlled areas, and at last the fear of being raped or executed by Assad regime and his allied militias after rebels’ withdrawal.
Even after their escape to regime-held areas, the men were abducted by Assad regime and moved to unknown areas.
That left them no options but to be evacuated to Idlib.
Reports say that up to 50,000 people remained ahead of the evacuation, including about 4,000 fighters and about 10,000 family members of fighters.
However, one Turkish government minister said up to 100,000 people might have to be evacuated.
Zouhir Al Shimale said “hundreds of families” have gathered before the suspension at the departure point for the buses.
“Civilians are given the choice to stay or leave. If they stay, they’ll be under regime control. Most of the people want to go because they are afraid of potential massacres by the regime,” Shimale added.
“In recent days, people are desperate to get to somewhere where we have the supplies – food, medicine, fuel – like we used to have in the days before the siege. Even if they are in refugee camps, but people still want to leave the besieged area.”
However, they had hope that they will return one day, to rebuild their homes and retrieve their lives.
— Ahmad Alkhatib (@AhmadAlkhtiib) December 17, 2016
— Ahmad Alkhatib (@AhmadAlkhtiib) December 15, 2016
Capturing eastern Aleppo is the biggest victory for Assad regime since the start of the revolution against him in 2011, restoring his control over the whole city apart from a Kurdish-held area that has not fought against him.
It is a victory for his allies, Russia and Iran, which have outmaneuvered the West and Assad’s regional enemies through direct military intervention.
For Assad regime, taking back Aleppo will help its forces focus on ending the remaining rebels-held areas. These areas include the rebels’ stronghold in Idlib in addition to isolated areas in rural Damascus, Homs, and Hama.
These areas have been under daily bombardment and crippling siege for years. The Old city of Homs and parts of rural Damascus has already been lost to Assad regime, and the remaining areas are expected to follow.
As a conclusion, defeating the rebels and retrieving Aleppo means destroying the last major resistance stronghold of the Syrian rebels and will lead eventually to the victory of Assad regime and ending the Syrian revolution.
The fate of rebel-held Aleppo spells the abject failure of the west’s contradictory and piecemeal policies. It is a humiliation for the UN. Its fall will be an unequivocal victory for Russian strategy, and the shameful and humiliating defeat for all those who said they stand with the civilians and left them to face annihilation including US, Turkey and all Arab states.
Aleppo will join an infamous list of cities whose names are synonymous with mass crimes committed while the world looked impotently on: Srebrenica, Grozny, even Guernica.