Evacuation deal on hold amid clashes
Agreement appears increasingly precarious as govt and rebels trade accusations
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.
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.
Forces loyal to the Syrian government stand atop a damaged tank near Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo on Tuesday.