Aleppo in Limbo as Evacuation Stalls Amid Crumbling Ceasefire

The deal to evacuate rebels and civilians has been delayed as the ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia was stalled due to renewed fighting.

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

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

The evacuation of civilians and rebels from remaining opposition-held territory in east Aleppo was delayed by several hours on Wednesday, as a shaky Russia-Turkey brokered ceasefire appeared to crumble in some areas of the city.

Implementation of the deal was expected to begin at about 5 am local time, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and sources on the ground said.

But three hours later, no movement had been reported inside rebel-held territory, and government buses gathering at the edge of the Salaheddin sat idle.

The delay came as a ceasefire appeared began to fray, with Russia blaiming rebel attacks and Turkey and rebel forces saying Iranian-backed militias had resumed fighting.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Melvut Cavusoglu, said the Syrian government and its allies were trying to block the ceasefire.

“We now see that the (Syrian) regime and some separate groups are trying to prevent this (agreement),” he told reporters in Ankara. “The evacuation could not take place in the full sense.”

“Iran and Russia need to accept responsibility and stop passing the blame,” he said.

Sources inside rebel-held territory in eastern Aleppo told Middle East Eye that pro-Assad forces broke the ceasefire in the early hours of Wednesday.

Zohair al-Shimale, an MEE contributor in east Aleppo, said shelling had restarted.

He said Iran-sponsored militias were opening a new front on the eastern side to press the rebels to evacuate.

“The attacks are very intense now,” he said.

“There is fierce bombardment by the regime forces on besieged Aleppo, using artillery, tanks, and mortars,” a Turkey-based official in the Jabha Shamiya faction told Reuters, citing reports from the ground.

“Iranian militias are turning people back,” said Zakaria Malahifji, a Turkey-based official with an Aleppo rebel group.

Russia meanwhile said that the ceasefire was broken when buses gathered near Salaheddin came under fire from rebel territory after the fighters “regrouped and relaunched hostilities” in an attempt to break through Syrian positions to the northwest.

The Russian military said in a statement: “The attack by the terrorists was warded off. The Syrian army continued its operation to liberate the eastern districts of Aleppo controlled by the rebels.”

Russia’s defence ministry was quoted on Wednesday by the Interfax news agency as saying that almost 6,000 civilians, among them 2,000 children, have left rebel-held districts of the Syrian city of Aleppo over the past 24 hours,

The defence ministry also said that over the same period 366 rebels had laid down their arms and moved out of rebel-controlled parts of the city, Interfax reported.

UN sidelined as Russia senses victory

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, also said on Wednesday that Moscow expected rebel resistance in Syria’s Aleppo to end in the next two to three days.

France’s foreign minister said on Wednesday that confusion surrounding the evacuation of civilians and rebel fighters from eastern Aleppo showed that it was imperative to have United Nations’ observers on the ground to manage the process.

“France wants the presence of UN observers on the ground and humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross must intervene,” Jean-Marc Ayrault told France 2 television.

The UN said it was “not involved” in plans to evacuate fighters and civilians from eastern Aleppo, but it was ready to help with any evacuation.

Burning books

In the last parts of the city still held by the rebels, large crowds gathered from before dawn awaiting evacuation.

Many spent the night in the street despite a storm, as they had fled from other areas and had nowhere to stay.

People in rebel-held eastern Aleppo have been packing their bags and burning personal possessions as they prepare to evacuate the area, a witness said, fearing looting by the Syrian army and its Iran-backed allied militias when they restore control.

Eastern Aleppo residents were seen burning things they could not take with them, such as pictures, books, clothes and even a car, since an evacuation deal was announced late on Tuesday.

Nevertheless, tens of thousands of civilians have chosen to stay on in the ever-shrinking rebel enclave for fear of arrest or torture by government forces.

Many more have fled to government-held districts or to territory controlled by Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Under the evacuation deal, both civilians and rebel fighters were to be transported to rebel-held territory elsewhere in northern Syria.

Global outrage

After weeks of heavy fighting, forces loyal to Assad were on the verge of taking all of the city, dealing the biggest blow to Syria’s rebellion in more than five years of civil war.

The agreement came amid mounting global outrage over reports of atrocities, including dozens of summary executions, as forces loyal to Assad closed in on the last pocket of rebel territory in Aleppo.

The UN said it had received credible reports of at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, being executed by pro-government forces in Aleppo in recent days.

In Geneva, UN rights office spokesman Rupert Colville said pro-government fighters had in some cases entered homes and killed those inside, and in others “caught and killed on the spot” fleeing civilians.

The UN was “filled with the deepest foreboding for those who remain in this last hellish corner of opposition-held eastern Aleppo,” he said.

Witnesses in Aleppo described scenes of carnage in rebel areas, with bodies lying amid the rubble of city streets, as desperate residents sat on pavements with nowhere to shelter.

Syria’s army has taken more than 90% of the territory once held by rebels in east Aleppo, after launching an all-out offensive last month to seize control of the entire city.

The government assault has been backed by heavy artillery fire and air strikes, with at least 463 civilians, including 62 children, killed in east Aleppo since mid-November, according to the observatory.

This article was originally published on Middle East Eye.

With agency inputs.