Iran-backed militias interfered again in the evacuation agreement in eastern Aleppo, halting it and holding tens of thousands of civilians again as hostages in the rebel-held areas of Aleppo.
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 Iranian-backed militias again, who refused the agreement and sought to force their conditions on its progress.
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.
Iran was insisting people be allowed to leave two besieged Shi’ite villages before letting the Aleppo evacuation happen.
“Iran and its sectarian proxies are using the humanitarian situation of our people in besieged Aleppo and preventing civilians from leaving until the evacuation of their groups in al-Foua and Kefyra,”Munir al Sayal, the head of the political wing of the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group said.
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.
“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.”
— Ahmad Alkhatib (@AhmadAlkhtiib) December 16, 2016
Sayal said Iranian-backed Shi’ite fighters led by Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia and other Iraqi Shi’ite groups were behind the detention of hundreds of people trying to leave on Friday, leading to some deaths before they were turned back, in an effort to disrupt the evacuation.
Four people who were part of a convoy evacuating the besieged districts of east Aleppo were killed by Syrian government forces.
Numerous rebels and east Aleppo residents shared reports and videos of people fleeing the sound of shooting, being detained and returning home badly beaten and robbed of their possessions near a checkpoint as they tried to leave the city on Friday.
“These sectarian militias are responsible but we warn them the safety of our people in Aleppo is the priority and all options are open toward achieving that goal,” said Sayal, whose armed group has a countrywide presence and is particularly active in northwestern Syria.
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.
— Zouhir_AlShimale (@ZouhirAlShimale) December 17, 2016
— Lina shamy (@Linashamy) December 17, 2016
The Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have played a leading role in the siege of rebel-held Aleppo and in the Syrian army’s retaking of near full control of the city, and will not leave a “victory” like this be passed without using it to achieve their goals and changing the city’s face and increase their dominance.
“Russia has failed to restrain the sectarian Shi’ite militias in Aleppo to complete the deal and Moscow should abide by its commitments,” Sayal said.
“There are still civilians in Aleppo who need to be evacuated in harsh weather conditions and Russian statements that besieged Aleppo is empty is absolving itself from following up on the agreement,” he added.
“It’s clear the Iranians have a different opinion here … I think they believe that they are winning and must finish off the opposition, rather than allow them to leave the city alive. The Syrian regime seems to be closer to the Iranian position,” an analyst said.
— Ahmad Alkhatib (@AhmadAlkhtiib) December 15, 2016
Iran’s strategy in Syria
Iran and the Syrian government do not want to compromise on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, believing that total domination will give them a better hand to shape the aftermath. Russia, on the other hand, sees a benefit in transitioning from bludgeoning superpower to peace-broker.
Shia militias have also played a decisive role. Raised by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the militias have been far more effective than Syrian units. Their numbers had built around east Aleppo since early last year to an estimated force of 6,000-8,000 troops, many of them battle-hardened in Iraq or southern Lebanon.
The militias report to the Iranian Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani, who was tasked more than a decade ago by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to export the values of the Islamic Revolution into the Arab world. Suleimani’s Quds Force is one of the Guards’ most elite units, attracting ideological cadres who believe in Shia supremacy.
Under Suleimani’s control are several Iraqi units, Asa’ib ahl al-Haq, Abu al-Fadhil al-Abbas, and the Nujaba Front, which is affiliated with the Keta’ib Hezbollah militia. All are power players in Iraq’s political-military sphere. Lebanese Hezbollah plays the same role in Beirut and southern Lebanon, where it is interwoven into the political and security apparatus.
Hezbollah was the first of the Iranian proxies to join the fight alongside Assad, and has paid a heavy price for doing so. Party loyalists in Beirut say at least 1,600 of its fighters had been killed in Syria before the conquest of east Aleppo.
Shia graveyards in Najaf have similarly been filling up, with several thousand Iraqi fighters known to have been killed in Syria and buried in large dedicated plots bought by the militias over the past three years.
Most casualties from the Iranian side have been Afghan refugees, recruited on the promise that their families would gain the right to reside in Iran. But an Iranian official said recently that as many as 1,000 Iranians had died in Syria since the conflict began.
The blood and treasure expended by Iran has focused on Aleppo and the western suburbs of Damascus, the site of the Zainab shrine – a pilgrimage point for Shia Muslims. Controlling these two areas would ensure Iran’s grip on the biggest areas in Syria and will be a huge step in changing Syria’s demographics to serve is own agendas.
Iran has framed its war effort in sectarian terms, insisting the men it has sent to fight are in Syria to defend the shrine from “Sunni extremists”. In addresses inside Syria, Akram al-Ka’abi, the leader of the Nujaba Front, has exhorted his followers to seek revenge for battlefield losses to Sunni figures in the founding years of Islam.
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.