Evac­u­a­tion deal on hold amid clashes

Agree­ment ap­pears in­creas­ingly pre­car­i­ous as govt and rebels trade ac­cu­sa­tions

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD - By AGEN­CIES in Aleppo, Syria and Beirut

Clashes erupted in Syria’s Aleppo on Wed­nes­day and a deal for the evac­u­a­tion of rebel ar­eas was on hold, leav­ing thou­sands of cold and hun­gry civilians un­cer­tain of their fu­ture.

En­tire fam­i­lies had gath­ered in the early hours, in the hope of leav­ing Aleppo af­ter an agree­ment an­nounced the night be­fore for rebels to with­draw from the city.

But the first ex­pected de­par­tures around 5 am were de­layed and, a few hours later, fierce fight­ing again be­gan to shake the city.

The land­mark deal — which would mark the end of op­po­si­tion re­sis­tance in Syria’s sec­ond city af­ter years of fight­ing — ap­peared in­creas­ingly pre­car­i­ous as the govern­ment, the rebels and their for­eign al­lies traded ac­cu­sa­tions.

Bro­kered by Rus­sia and Turkey, the deal was an­nounced a month into an army op­er­a­tion to re­cap­ture all of Aleppo that has seen the govern­ment take more than 90 per­cent of the eastern dis­tricts rebels had held.

Moscow said the Syr­ian army had re­sumed its op­er­a­tions in Aleppo af­ter “an at­tack by the ter­ror­ists was warded off ”.

State me­dia said rebel rocket fire on govern­ment-con­trolled ar­eas re­sumed, with at least seven peo­ple re­ported dead.

The last pocket of rebel-held ter­ri­tory in east Aleppo also came un­der heavy tank fire, a jour­nal­ist said in the area.

Ankara ac­cused the Syr­ian govern­ment and its sup­port­ers of ham­per­ing the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the evac­u­a­tion deal.

Syria’s rebels once dreamed of over­throw­ing the govern­ment and tak­ing con­trol of the coun­try, but with the im­mi­nent loss of Aleppo they now face the prospect of to­tal de­feat.

A crush­ing de­feat

Though rebels re­tain ter­ri­tory else­where in Syria, in­clud­ing al­most all of neigh­bor­ing Idlib prov­ince, a crush­ing de­feat in the coun­try’s sec­ond city would be highly sym­bolic.

It “means the end of Syria’s op­po­si­tion as a force that can plau­si­bly chal­lenge the govern­ment or con­trol a coun­try”, said Sam Heller, a fel­low at The Cen­tury Foun­da­tion think tank.

When rebels stormed Aleppo in 2012, the op­po­si­tion be­lieved it was on the verge of over­throw­ing the govern­ment.

With the sup­port of back­ers in­clud­ing West­ern na­tions, rebels ap­peared to have mo­men­tum on their side.

But in re­cent months, they have suf­fered a string of de­feats capped off by their likely loss of Aleppo.

“We’re now past the point where the op­po­si­tion has any hope of pulling back,” said Yezid Sayigh, a se­nior fel­low at the Carnegie Mid­dle East Cen­ter.

“They just no longer have the numbers and the geo­graphic spread to be able to mount ma­jor of­fen­sives.”

With Aleppo out of rebel hands, the largest re­main­ing rebel bas­tion is Idlib, which is con­trolled by an al­liance dom­i­nated by for­mer al-Qaida af­fil­i­ate Fateh al-Sham Front.

Rebels also hold ter­ri­tory in south­ern Daraa prov­ince and the Ghouta region around Da­m­as­cus, al­though the army has been ad­vanc­ing there.

Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion deals

In re­cent months, the govern­ment has sealed a num­ber of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion deals with rebel ar­eas in Ghouta, se­cur­ing the sur­ren­der of op­po­si­tion fight­ers in re­turn for grant­ing them safe pas­sage to Idlib.

The op­po­si­tion crit­i­cizes these deals as a “starve or sur­ren­der” tac­tic, with rebels forced into deals af­ter months or years of army siege and sus­tained bom­bard­ment.

But the govern­ment has long touted such deals as the best way to re­solve a con­flict that has killed more than 310,000 peo­ple and dis­placed more than half the pop­u­la­tion since it be­gan in March 2011.

“I thinks it’s very likely that the loy­al­ist forces will move quickly to im­pose ca­pit­u­la­tion deals on other rebel pock­ets,” said Aron Lund, a non­res­i­dent fel­low also at The Cen­tury Foun­da­tion.

OMAR SANADIKI / REUTERS

Forces loyal to the Syr­ian govern­ment stand atop a dam­aged tank near Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo on Tues­day.

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