Besieged rebels seek way out of Aleppo
beirut» Syrian government forces swept through the Old City of Aleppo on Wednesday as rebel forces — besieged and facing certain defeat — debated when to withdraw from their shattered stronghold.
The government’s push into the historic heart of Syria’s largest city marks a defining moment in more than five years of war. The army and allied militiamen now control three-quarters of east Aleppo, the rebels’ most important enclave.
The accelerating rebel collapse came as Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Germany for a last-ditch effort to agree on conditions that would allow the city to be evacuated. Kerry said the two would meet again Thursday morning.
More than 730 people have been killed in Aleppo since the government offensive began on Nov. 15, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group. On Wednesday, the militants called for a five-day ceasefire to allow civilians, including an estimated 500 people in need of medical evacuation, to leave for the countryside north of the city.
But officials within the armed opposition, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a much broader agreement was being discussed involving a full withdrawal from the city. Activists said dozens of rebels had already fled.
In comments published Wednesday, President Bashar Assad said victory in Aleppo would be a “huge step” toward the end of Syria’s war.
The eastern districts of the city have been under siege since July, with bombardment by Syrian and Russian warplanes killing hundreds of civilians and destroying hospitals that treated the wounded.
Repeated government warnings in recent weeks — sent via text message or printed on airdropped leaflets — have urged residents to leave, warning that those who stay will be “annihilated.”
In the winding, close alleys of Aleppo’s 12th-century Old City, history has been erased. The 14th-century Old Souk has burned, and at the Umayyad Mosque, metal spikes twist out where a minaret once stood.
Inside what remains of the rebel enclave, there is a growing humanitarian crisis. Amid blistering bombardment, thousands of residents displaced by the offensive now shelter inside abandoned apartment blocks.
Food has almost run out, and fuel stocks are so low that rescue workers say they are often unable to reach the wounded.
“Even by Syrian standards, the recent bombardment and shelling have been the most intense in Aleppo,” Hanaa Singer, UNICEF’s representative in Syria, said in an emailed statement Wednesday.
Syrian residents fleeing the violence in the eastern, rebel-held parts of Aleppo leave their neighborhoods Wednesday. George Ourfalian, AFP/Getty Images