Battle of Aleppo Ends

A man carries a child with an IV drip as he flees deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

A man carries a child with an IV drip as he flees deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

By Laila Bassam, Angus McDowall and Stephanie Nebehay 
December 13, 2106

Smoke rises as seen from a governement-held area of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Smoke rises as seen from a governement-held area of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – Rebel resistance in the Syrian city of Aleppo ended on Tuesday after years of fighting and months of bitter siege and bombardment that culminated in a bloody retreat, as insurgents agreed to withdraw in a ceasefire.

The battle of Aleppo, one of the worst of a civil war that has drawn in global and regional powers, has ended with victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his military coalition of Russia, Iran and regional Shi’ite militias.

For rebels, their expected departure with light weapons starting on Wednesday morning for opposition-held regions west of the city is a crushing blow to their hopes of ousting Assad after revolting against him during the 2011 Arab uprisings.

However, the war will still be far from over, with insurgents retaining major strongholds elsewhere in Syria, and the jihadist Islamic State group holding swathes of the east and recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra this week.

“Over the last hour we have received information that the military activities in east Aleppo have stopped, it has stopped,” Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told a heated U.N. Security Council meeting. “The Syrian government has established control over east Aleppo.”

Rebel officials said fighting would end on Tuesday evening and a source in the pro-Assad military alliance said the evacuation of fighters would begin at around dawn on Wednesday. A Reuters reporter in Aleppo said late on Tuesday that the booms of the bombardment could no longer be heard.

Fighters and their families, along with civilians who have thrown in their lot with the rebels, will have until Wednesday evening to quit the city, a Turkish government source said on Tuesday. The ceasefire was negotiated by Turkey and Russia, without U.S. involvement.

A commander with the Jabha Shamiya rebel group said that Aleppo was a moral victory for the insurgents. “We were steadfast … but unfortunately nobody stood with us at all”, the commander, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.

People walk as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

People walk as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

“UNCOMPROMISING VICTORY”

The plight of civilians has caused global outrage in the wake of a sudden series of advances by the Syrian army and its allies across the rebel enclave over the past two weeks.

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“We appear to be witnessing nothing less than … a total uncompromising military victory,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday.

The rout of rebels from their ever-shrinking territory in Aleppo sparked a mass flight of terrified civilians and insurgents in bitter weather, a crisis the United Nations said was a “complete meltdown of humanity”. There were food and water shortages in rebel areas with all hospitals closed.

The United Nations earlier on Tuesday voiced deep concern about reports it had received of Syrian soldiers and allied Iraqi fighters summarily shooting dead 82 people in recaptured east Aleppo districts. It accused them of “slaughter”.

“The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes,” said U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville. “There could be many more.”

“They have gone from siege to slaughter,” British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said. “Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later – Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica and now Aleppo,” said U.S. ambassador Samantha Power.

The Syrian army has denied carrying out killings or torture among those captured, and its main ally Russia said on Tuesday rebels had “kept over 100,000 people in east Aleppo as human shields”.

An official with an Aleppo rebel group said the bulk of about 50,000 people was expected to be evacuated.

Fear stalked the city’s streets. Some survivors trudged in the rain past dead bodies to the government-held west or the few districts still in rebel hands. Others stayed in their homes and awaited the Syrian army’s arrival.

For all of them, fear of arrest, conscription or summary execution added to the daily terror of bombardment. “People are saying the troops have lists of families of fighters and are asking them if they had sons with the terrorists. (They are) then either left or shot and left to die,” said Abu Malek al-Shamali in Seif al-Dawla, one of the last rebel-held districts.

Damaged buildings are seen in the government-held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Damaged buildings are seen in the government-held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, during a media tour, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WASTELAND OF RUBBLE

A Syrian military source said the evacuation of fighters would start at 5 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Wednesday. The source said fighters’ families would also leave, but did not mention other civilian evacuations.

Behind those fleeing was a wasteland of flattened buildings, concrete rubble and bullet-pocked walls, where tens of thousands had lived until recent days under intense bombardment even after medical and rescue services had collapsed.

The once-flourishing economic centre with its renowned ancient sites has been pulverised during the war which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis and allowed for the rise of Islamic State.

The U.N.’s Colville said the rebel-held area had become “a hellish corner” of less than a square kilometre. Its capture was imminent, he added.

The Syrian army and its allies could declare victory at any moment, a Syrian military source had said earlier, predicting the final fall of the rebel enclave on Tuesday or Wednesday, after insurgent defences collapsed on Monday.

Terrible conditions were described by city residents. Abu Malek al-Shamali, a resident in the rebel area, said dead bodies lay in the streets. “There are many corpses in Fardous and Bustan al-Qasr with no one to bury them,” he said.

“Last night people slept in the streets and in buildings where every flat has several families crowded in,” he added.

People carry their belongings as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

People carry their belongings as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

TIDE OF REFUGEES

State television broadcast footage of a tide of hundreds of refugees walking along a ravaged street, wearing thick clothes against the rain and cold, many with hoods or hats pulled tight around their faces, and hauling sacks or bags of belongings.

One man pushed a bicycle loaded with bags, another family pulled a cart on which sat an elderly woman. Another man carried on his back a small girl wearing a pink hat.

At the same time, a correspondent from a pro-Damascus television station spoke to camera from a part of Aleppo held by the government, standing in a tidy street with flowing traffic.

In some recaptured areas, people were returning to their shattered homes. A woman in her sixties, who identified herself as Umm Ali, or “Ali’s mother”, said that she, her husband and her disabled daughter had no water.

They were looking after the orphaned children of another daughter killed in the bombing, she said, and were reduced to putting pots and pans in the street to collect rainwater.

In another building near al-Shaar district, which was taken by the army last week, a man was fixing the balcony of his house with his children. “No matter the circumstances, our home is better than displacement,” he said.

“The crushing of Aleppo, the immeasurably terrifying toll on its people, the bloodshed, the wanton slaughter of men, women and children, the destruction – and we are nowhere near the end of this cruel conflict,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Reporting By Laila Bassam in Aleppo, Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Lisa Barrington, John Davison and Tom Perry in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Peter Millership)

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Russia declares Aleppo offensive over; U.S. calls its violence “modern evil”

By Michelle Nichols

A man pushes a cart with belongings as he flees deeper with another man into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

A man pushes a cart with belongings as he flees deeper with another man into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – A Syrian government military offensive in Aleppo, backed by Russia and Iran, was over, Russia’s U.N. envoy said on Tuesday as the United States described the violence in the besieged city as “modern evil.”

Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said an agreement had been struck for rebels to evacuate the north-western city and he said civilians would be unharmed, despite western and U.N. accusations of the intentional killing of civilians.

“Over the last hour we have received information that the military activities in east Aleppo have stopped, it has stopped,” Churkin told a heated U.N. Security Council meeting called by France and Britain. “The Syrian government has established control over east Aleppo.”

A surrender or withdrawal of the rebels from Aleppo would deliver Syrian President Bashar al-Assad his biggest battlefield victory in the nearly six year conflict.

The United Nations said on Tuesday it had reports that Syrian soldiers and allied Iraqi fighters had summarily shot dead 82 civilians in recaptured districts of Aleppo, which was Syria’s largest city before the civil war began in 2011.

“They have gone from siege to slaughter,” British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told the 15-member council.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his briefing to the council, called on the Syrian government, Russia and Iran to urgently allow civilians to escape Aleppo.

“There was an abundance of early warning given to this council regarding the situation in Aleppo,” Ban said. “We have collectively failed the people of Syria … History will not easily absolve us.”

Churkin told reporters that Russian military personnel had not seen “any abuses of international humanitarian law.” The Syrian army has denied carrying out killings or torture among those captured.

The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said the Syrian government, Russia and Iran would be responsible for atrocities committed in Aleppo.

“By rejecting U.N./ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) evacuation efforts you are signalling to those militia who are massacring innocents to keep doing what they are doing,” Power said.

“Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later – Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica and now Aleppo,” she said.

A crackdown by Assad on pro-democracy protesters in 2011 led to civil war and Islamic State militants have used the chaos to seize territory in Syria and Iraq. Half of Syria’s 22 million people have been uprooted and more than 400,000 killed.

U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura told reporters after the meeting that the United Nations wants its representatives to be allowed to be there when civilians are evacuated and opposition fighters withdraw.

De Mistura said there were an estimated 50,000 civilians still in rebel-held territory of Aleppo, along with 1,500 opposition fighters of which he said about 30 percent belong to jihadist group Nusra Front.

Copyright Reuters 2016

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

Related on F&O:

In 2013 F&O partner Jonathan Manthorpe called Syria our modern Gordian knot. Here are F&O’s works that explain and put Syria’s agony in context:

Aleppo will fall, but Syrian war will go on — Analysis, by By Samia Nakhoul October, 2016

Syria’s mobile amputee clinic, photo-essay, By Khalil Ashawi April, 2016

Heartbreak in starving Syrian town, By Lisa Barrington and Stephanie Nebehay January 12, 2015

Our selective grief: Paris, Beirut, Ankara, and Syria, by  Tom Regan November, 2015  Column

Syria: new weaponry test bed By David StupplesCity University London  October, 2015

Ethnic groups flee as Syrian Kurds advance against Islamic State, By Humeyra Pamuk July, 2015

Al-Qaida Jihadists Suspicious of Iraq-Syria Caliphate, by Jonathan Manthorpe July 16, 2014   Column

Putin supports Syria for fear of revolution spreading to Russia’s Muslims, by Jonathan Manthorpe  : September 6, 2013 Column

Cutting Syria’s Gordian knot no simple feat, by Jonathan Manthorpe   August 28, 2013  Column

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