The Battle for Syria
|Louisa Loveluck||November 30th 2016|
Syrian government forces seized full control of northeast Aleppo on Monday, overrunning a third of what remained of the rebel enclave and sending thousands of civilians into panicked flight.
The area’s recapture brings President Bashar al-Assad’s troops closer than ever to realizing their biggest victory of the five-year-old civil war: retaking full control of what was once Syria’s commercial capital.
The reconquered neighborhoods in Aleppo had been among the first to throw off government control in 2012. On Nov. 15, government forces launched a final push to take them back, supported by Russian warplanes and Iranian-backed troops.
By nightfall, at least 10,000 civilians had poured out of the shattered enclave — exhausted, bedraggled and often close to tears.
Monitoring groups said the rebels had lost a third of their territory in the city as district after district fell to government and Kurdish forces. The two are fighting on separate fronts to expand footholds in Aleppo, although apparently with a degree of coordination.
The Syrian army is now in control of the northern districts of Sakhur, Haydariya and Sheik Khodr, while Kurdish fighters hold a swath of land to the west. There were unconfirmed reports that some male residents of the recaptured areas had been taken to a nearby airport for interrogation.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said Monday that at least 4,000 people had reached the Jibreen district of government-held western Aleppo. An additional 6,000 arrived in the Kurdish-controlled area of Sheik Maksoud.
“Parents are fleeing with their children and the only possessions they could grab on the way out,” said Pawel Krzysiek, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The capture of eastern Aleppo was considered in 2012 one of the armed opposition’s greatest victories. Its fall — and the rebels’ final defeat — now seem inevitable.
The streets in their remaining districts as darkness fell were full of displaced civilians, many without possessions, searching for new homes. Al-Watan, a government-aligned newspaper, said the army aimed to divide the remaining rebel-held territory into isolated pockets, forcing the rebels to surrender or “accept national reconciliation under the terms of the Syrian state.”
In other areas across the country, the United Nations has described this strategy as “surrender or starve.” In eastern Aleppo, it would involve deepening an already crippling siege on the tens of thousands of civilians still trapped in the middle.
The White Helmets rescue group warned of an “imminent humanitarian disaster.” Residents said it already had arrived. No aid shipment has reached the area since July, and civilians are surviving on shrinking stockpiles of food, reducing daily meals from three to two to one.
Eastern Aleppo’s rebel-run council says that at least 500 civilians have been killed and 1,500 wounded in the latest offensive. No one knows the true number of dead.
Amid intense bombardment and paltry fuel supplies, rescue workers have been unable to clear many of the blast sites, leaving broken bodies amid the rubble of homes.
The rebel council oversees hasty funerals above mass graves, often for corpses that cannot be identified because they are too badly disfigured or because there is no relative alive who can help with the identification. One rescue worker recounted watching two mothers combing through a bag of body parts for the remains of their loved ones — one was recognized by the watch on his arm, the other by the jean fragments on a leg.
Aleppo, in northern Syria, was once one of the world’s great cities, viewed for centuries as a symbol of cosmopolitanism and coexistence. In Syria’s war, it has become a geopolitical battleground, with rebel groups backed by the United States, Turkey and Persian Gulf states slugging it out against the government’s coalition of Syrian, Russian and Iran-backed troops. Late Monday, amid reports that cellphone towers had come under the control of pro-Assad forces, it seemed that communication from many of the eastern districts had gone dark.
Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed to this report.