Aleppo evacuation halted
Gunfire erupts as regime, rebels trade blame
BEIRUT: The evacuation of eastern Aleppo stalled yesterday after an eruption of gunfire, as the Syrian government and rebels threw accusations at each other, raising fears that a peaceful surrender of the opposition enclave could fall apart with thousands of people believed to be still inside.
The government suspended the evacuation, pulling out buses that had been ferrying out people Friday morning and the day before, after reports of shooting at a crossing point into the enclave. The foreign minister of Turkey, a backer of the rebels, said he was in talks with his counterpart in Iran, a top ally of the Syrian government, to try to get the process back on track.
The suspension demonstrated the fragility of the cease-fire deal under which civilians and fighters inside the few remaining blocks of the rebel enclave in Aleppo were to be taken to opposition-held territory nearby. It appeared to be linked to a separate evacuation to remove thousands of people from two government-held villages besieged by the rebels. The Syrian government says those evacuations and that in eastern Aleppo must be carried out at the same time under the ceasefire deal, but the rebels say there is no connection.
Syrian state media said rebels shelled a road that was supposed to be used by people evacuating from these two villages. The opposition’s Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said the Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters had cut the road to protest a lack of progress in the evacuations from Foua and Kfarya. Buses that arrived at a collection point in Hama countryside to pick up people evacuating from the villages waited for hours without any evacuations happening.
Later yesterday, two rebel spokesmen privy to the talks said the fighters besieging the two Shiite villages, including al-Qaida linked militant group Fatah al-Sham Front, have agreed to evacuate several hundred wounded from the Shiite villages. If it happens, this may lead to the resumption of evacuation from Aleppo.
There were differing reports on how many people had been evacuated from the enclave and how many remained inside, who would be in danger of being caught in the crossfire if the cease-fire falls apart. Reports by opposition activists and officials in eastern Aleppo ranged from 15,000 to 40,000 civilians still inside the tiny enclave, along with some 6,000 fighters.
The evacuations seal the end of the Syrian rebels’ most important stronghold - the eastern part of the city of Aleppo - and mark a watershed moment in the country’s civil war, now in its sixth year. In announcing the suspensions, Syrian state TV also claimed that the rebels had tried to take captives with them, ones they had seized and were holding in the rebel enclave from bitter battles to defend their territory from a ferocious, weeks-long onslaught by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops.
BEIRUT: They fled Aleppo from different districts and at different stages of Syria’s civil war, seeking refuge abroad. Now, for refugees who supported the opposition, President Bashar alAssad’s victory has dashed hopes of ever going home. Even as the uprising in Aleppo and cities across Syria descended into conflict, several former residents interviewed by Reuters said they had hoped there could still be change, a negotiated settlement and a chance to return.
But as Assad reasserts control after the army and its allies routed rebels in Aleppo, these Syrians living in exile fear that a new crackdown that will include arrests and executions, and be worse than anything witnessed pre-war. “If I go back, I’ll be executed,” said Abdulhamid Zughbi, a 30-year-old who fled besieged eastern rebelheld Aleppo earlier this year for Turkey, seeking medical treatment for his wife and infant son.
“I can’t even think about returning as long as the Assad regime is still in power. It’s impossible for anyone from the opposition,” he said. Nearly 5 million Syrians have fled the country in a conflict that has killed more than 300,000 people and pitted multiple warring sides against each other, including jihadists who have come to dominate the insurgency in many areas.
The permanent displacement of millions of Syrians is one way in which its war and others in the region are causing irreversible changes. Most refugees are in neighboring countries including Turkey and Lebanon, and hundreds of thousands have gone to Europe.
Some will see Assad’s win in Aleppo and other gains he has made with Russian and Iranian support as a chance to return and rebuild their lives - but not those involved in dissent when protests began in 2011.
Zughbi took part, then worked for years in medical aid and rescue in rebel-held eastern Aleppo. “My wife was lightly wounded in shelling and my son was ill. I thought I’d take them to Turkey and come back. “That day, they closed the road, and I couldn’t return,” he said, referring to when government forces sealed off the rebel-held part of the city in August. They besieged it for months and then made a lightning advance to drive insurgents out of most of their areas they held in a matter of weeks.
‘arrests have just begun’
As residents have poured out of rebel districts, including into areas under government control, the army has begun making arrests, Zughbi said. “The arrests have just begun. They detain the more prominent people (activists) on the spot ... but for others - now they (the government) have the time, they’ll investigate and then arrest them at a later stage.
“A friend of mine went to a governmentheld area and three days later they detained him.” The United Nations voiced deep concern about reports of Syrian soldiers and allied Iraqi fighters summarily shooting dead 82 people in east Aleppo districts this week - accusations denied by the army and the Iraqi militia in question. Assad’s opponents accused the government of mass arrests and forced conscription. A Syrian military source denied arrests but said identities of people leaving rebel-held areas were being checked and anyone who was unknown was being put into “specific places” in areas where civilians were gathered. The army says Syrians eligible for military service must serve.
For Abu Rakan, a 51-year-old refugee living in Lebanon, the death of his brother in law, a rebel fighter, and disappearance just days ago of his sister have underscored the danger for anyone linked to the opposition. “If we go back, it’ll be more dangerous than before. Anyone with the opposition is in danger.
“We’ve lived with this regime for 40 years. We know how it behaves, what it does,” he said, referring also to Assad’s father and former president Hafez al-Assad, who crushed leftist and Islamist challenges to his rule.
Abu Rakan said he would only return to Syria under a “full national reconciliation”, and if there were a freely elected government in place and a new constitution - all of which look more than distant than ever. Hala, an activist who left government-controlled Aleppo in 2014, said she would not trust any settlement between the government and opposition - Assad had to go. “There’s no way I can go back while the Assad regime is there,” said the 37-year-old, who now lives in Beirut and works for a Syrian citizenship organization.
“Even if there was a kind of reconciliation, we wouldn’t be able to live there. The oppression that existed before the revolution will multiply. “When the revolution began we were able to express our views and to live more freely. Even if we weren’t arrested, we can’t go back, knowing it will be just like it was,” she said.—Reuters
A tractor carrying people who were evacuated from rebel-held neighborhoods in the embattled city of Aleppo arrives in the opposition-controlled Khan Al-Aassal region, west of the embattled city yesterday. (See Page 7)
IDLIB: Turkish medics carry a wounded Syrian woman, evacuated from Aleppo, to a field hospital near Idlib, Syria yesterday. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said 7,500 civilians have been evacuated from the Syrian city of Aleppo and that he has reached out to Tehran in a bid to keep the process on track.—AP