ENDGAME IN ALEPPO

City to be re­mem­bered as death of a dream of more demo­cratic Syria

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Liz Sly, Louisa Loveluck and Missy Ryan

Awounded Syr­ian woman from the al-Sukari neigh­bor­hood is helped onto the back of a truck Wed­nes­day as she flees amid the govern­ment forces’ on­go­ing mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion to re­take re­main­ing rebel-held ar­eas in the north­ern embattled city of Aleppo. With the rebels cling­ing to a tiny dot of ter­ri­tory in one cor­ner of the city, it is now only a mat­ter of time be­fore the govern­ment re­claims full con­trol over the coun­try’s big­gest metropo­lis, an ar­chi­tec­tural and his­tor­i­cal jewel that has now be­come a sym­bol of the catas­tro­phe of the Syr­ian war.

When Syr­ian rebels surged into Aleppo in sum­mer 2012, it was the high point of their still-young, still-ide­al­is­tic rev­o­lu­tion against Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

Nearly five years and hun­dreds of thou­sands of deaths later, troops loyal to his govern­ment were poised to take the city back, herald­ing the end of an era for the re­bel­lion.

With the rebels cling­ing to a tiny pin­prick of ter­ri­tory in one cor­ner of the city, it is now only a mat­ter of time be­fore the govern­ment re­claims full con­trol over the coun­try’s big­gest metropo­lis, an ar­chi­tec­tural and his­tor­i­cal jewel that has now be­come a sym­bol of the catas­tro­phe of the Syr­ian war.

A cease-fire to evac­u­ate rebel fight­ers and civilians from the re­main­ing op­po­si­tion-held neigh­bor­hoods of Aleppo un­rav­eled Wed­nes­day, once again rais­ing the specter of a bloody end to the bat­tle for Syria’s largest city.

Op­po­nents of As­sad ac­cused the govern­ment and its al­lies of scut­tling the deal by adding new con­di­tions, in­clud­ing the lift­ing of a rebel siege on two pro-govern­ment Shi­ite vil­lages in the nearby prov­ince of Idlib.

How­ever, hours af­ter it crum­bled, the rebels said the deal was back on. There was no comment from the govern­ment or its al­lies, and min­utes af­ter the new cease-fire was to take ef­fect at 11:30 p.m. lo­cal time, there were still re­ports of shelling in the few blocks of the city un­der rebel con­trol.

“We re­main skep­ti­cal,” said one U.S. offi-

cial, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity. “We’ve seen these kind of dec­la­ra­tions be­fore by the Rus­sians and the regime, and just as many times we’ve seen them vi­o­lated and bro­ken.”

If the evac­u­a­tion does not go ahead, an even big­ger night­mare could un­fold, U.N. agen­cies and hu­man rights groups warned. Jens Laerke, the U.N. hu­man­i­tar­ian spokesman, called the sce­nario in Aleppo “a com­plete melt­down of hu­man­ity.”

There have been dis­turb­ing re­ports of abuses as As­sad loy­al­ists con­verged in re­cent days on for­mer rebel strongholds that had been fight­ing against the govern­ment. The U.N. Hu­man Rights Coun­cil said it had been given the names of 82 civilians who were killed in sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions in two neigh­bor­hoods Mon­day. Ac­cord­ing to Ru­pert Colville, spokesman for the Of­fice of the U.N. High Com­mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights, the re­ports as­serted that Syr­ian soldiers and al­lied Iraqi mili­ti­a­men had en­tered homes and killed peo­ple “on the spot.” Among them were 11 women and 13 chil­dren, he said.

Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple who fled the neigh­bor­hoods over­run in re­cent days have sought refuge in the tiny en­clave still un­der op­po­si­tion con­trol, join­ing the res­i­dents who al­ready were there and creat­ing chaos in the cramped streets. Peo­ple stum­bled over the bod­ies of the dead as they fled for their lives ahead of ad­vanc­ing govern­ment troops, and they now fear for their lives should they be caught, said Zouhir al-Shi­male, an ac­tivist who lives in one of the last re­bel­held neigh­bor­hoods.

Most peo­ple now only want the chance to es­cape the area safely and wel­comed the news of Tues­day’s deal with “a kind of shock of hap­pi­ness,” said Shi­male, who was among those who joined in the up­ris­ing against As­sad’s rule. But now, he said, all any­one can think about is get­ting out.

“It’s dead. It’s over, and no one cares,” he said.

The rout of the rebels gives the As­sad govern­ment its big­gest vic­tory yet in the 5-year-old war, which has killed, by most es­ti­mates, more than 400,000 peo­ple. It won’t, how­ever, change the course of the con­flict, which was all but sealed by Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion more than a year ago. That As­sad is in no dan­ger of be­ing top­pled has been clear since Rus­sian airstrikes be­gan turn­ing back rebel gains, putting be­yond doubt that the op­po­si­tion would ever be able to over­throw his regime in Da­m­as­cus.

It also won’t end the war. The rebels still con­trol large ar­eas of north­west­ern Syria, much of the coun­try­side of south­ern Syria and sev­eral pock­ets of ter­ri­tory around Da­m­as­cus and near Homs.

But the endgame in Aleppo does change the pa­ram­e­ters of the con­flict, leav­ing the rebels with no hold over any strate­gi­cally sig­nif­i­cant area of the coun­try and no real bar­gain­ing chip to try to force the govern­ment into a ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment. Com­ing weeks be­fore the in­au­gu­ra­tion of a new U.S. pres­i­dent, Don­ald Trump, it leaves the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s 5-year-old pol­icy of us­ing rebel gains to force As­sad to com­pro­mise in shreds.

The blood­shed could now in­ten­sify, diplo­mats fear, as an em­bold­ened govern­ment, backed by its Rus­sian and Ira­nian al­lies, in­ten­si­fies its ef­forts to ful­fill As­sad’s prom­ise to re­claim all of the ter­ri­tory lost to the rebels.

Whether they can, at least any time soon, is a dif­fer­ent ques­tion. It has been three years since govern­ment forces turned the tide in Aleppo and be­gan tak­ing back rebel ar­eas.

“Two things are ab­so­lutely clear here,” said the U.S. of­fi­cial. “One, the regime doesn’t have ca­pa­bil­ity to end this war, even with Rus­sia’s back­ing, and the scorched-earth ap­proach that they’re tak­ing is only go­ing to at­tract more ex­trem­ists.”

Aleppo will none­the­less be re­mem­bered as a sym­bolic milestone, the fi­nal death of a dream of a more demo­cratic Syria that had waned long ago. The bru­tal­ity of the govern­ment crackdown and the re­luc­tance of world pow­ers to pres­sure the As­sad regime into soft­en­ing its tac­tics ex­posed short­com­ings in the global sys­tem of laws and norms de­signed to ame­lio­rate the suf­fer­ing of civilians in war.

Aleppo rep­re­sents “the death of re­spect for in­ter­na­tional law and the rules of war,” ac­cord­ing to David Miliband, who heads the In­ter­na­tional Rescue Com­mit­tee, an aid agency.

U.S. Sens. John McCain and Lind­sey Gra­ham, who have long ad­vo­cated a more as­sertive U.S. pol­icy to­ward Syria, said Aleppo would go down in his­tory as one of the great fail­ures of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to halt hu­man rights abuses.

“The name Aleppo will echo through his­tory, like Sre­brenica and Rwanda, as a tes­ta­ment to our moral fail­ure and ev­er­last­ing shame,” the sen­a­tors said.

Ge­orge Ourfalian, AFP/Getty Im­ages

AFP/Getty Im­ages

aleppo • aug. 20, 2011. The mar­ket­place in the his­toric city cen­ter is bustling with shop­pers and sell­ers. At the time, Aleppo was Syria’s largest city, with a pop­u­la­tion of about 2.5 mil­lion peo­ple, which is a lit­tle more than that of Hous­ton.

Youssef Kar­washan, AFP/Getty Im­ages

aleppo • sept. 16, 2016. Syr­ian govern­ment soldiers walk in the dam­aged al-Farafira mar­ket­place in the city cen­ter. More than five years of war have left an es­ti­mated 400,000 dead and forced hun­dreds of thou­sands to flee.

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