Thousands of civilians caught between a Syrian government advance and rebels holed up in eastern Aleppo fled across front lines on Tuesday, as aid agencies scramble to respond to an unfolding humanitarian disaster.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Tuesday that at least 20,000 frightened civilians, many women and children, have fled in the past 48-hours, while a senior government official in Damascus said that some 20,000 fled on Tuesday alone.
The Russian-backed Syrian army bolstered by Iraqi, Iranian and Lebanese Shi’a militias have swept into eastern Aleppo over the past several days, retaking the northern third of the stronghold controlled by a mix of moderate rebel and jihadist factions.
The intense fighting and heavy barrage of Syrian airstrikes and artillery have triggered an exodus of civilians fleeing eastern Aleppo to government-controlled western Aleppo and to the Kurdish enclave in the Sheikh Maqsood neighbourhood. Other civilians have moved further into government encircled eastern Aleppo, where the UN estimates more than 200,000 people are trapped.
Residents and activists in the remaining rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo described scenes of civilians crowded into a shrinking area of bombed out buildings, some desperately huddled in alleyways or empty residences as bombs rained down.
Concern over fate of civilians
The UN Security Council will meet on Wednesday for an emergency session on Aleppo’s humanitarian situation, after France and the United Kingdom called for a meeting.
The UN’s human rights office said it was concerned over reports that rebel groups were preventing civilians from fleeing the eastern sector, which has been in rebel hands since 2012.The UN body also expressed fears that some civilians fleeing into government or Kurdish controlled areas would be arbitrarily detained.
The Kurdish YPG militia, which has repeatedly clashed with jihadist rebel factions but does not fight the regime, has used the retreat to take over several opposition neighbourhoods. Some opposition activists claim the neighbourhoods were handed over to Kurds to help protect civilians.
Rights group Amnesty International on Tuesday called on the government to ensure civilians were not arbitrarily arrested or subject to revenge attacks amid reports men have been rounded up.
“Given the Syrian government’s long and dark history of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances on a mass scale, it is even more crucial that civilians are protected in newly captured areas of Aleppo city,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty’s deputy director for campaigns in Beirut.
A senior military official in Damascus told AP news agency the government was implementing security measures to vet those leaving to ensure no rebel fighters had infiltrated among civilians and to prevent sleeper cell attacks. He said the government was assessing where to locate those fleeing the city.
‘You will be annihilated’
The rapid Syrian government gains in Aleppo follow a nearly five-month siege on the eastern part of the city since it was surrounded in July, cutting off supply routes to both rebels and civilians. The Syrian government has on several occasions offered rebels and their families safe passage out of Aleppo, but the rebels refused.
The regime has negotiated a number of local deals with rebel factions around the country, offering safe passage out of besieged areas to rebel-held Idlib province and other areas. On Tuesday, at least 1,200 rebel fighters and their families were evacuated out of a besieged rebel area near Damascus to the rebel stronghold of Idlib province as part of a deal struck between local leaders and the regime in order to bring it back under government control.
Leaflets dropped on eastern Aleppo during the siege have made “chilling clear” the Russian and Syrian government’s intentions, UN Humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien told the UN Security Council last month.
The leaflets read: “This is your last hope….Save yourselves. If you do not leave these areas urgently, you will be annihilated.” They end by saying: “You know that everyone has given up on you. They left you alone to face your doom, and nobody will give you any help.”
No food, no supplies
Even before the latest Syrian government offensive that started two weeks ago, the UN and aid agencies had warned of a humanitarian disaster as food and basic supplies ran out and medical facilities were destroyed in airstrikes. UN aid deliveries haven’t reached opposition-held areas of Aleppo since July. Across the country nearly a million people are under siege.
O’Brien said Tuesday the deteriorating situation in Aleppo was “deeply alarming and chilling.”
“There are no functioning hospitals left, and official food stocks are practically finished in eastern Aleppo,” O’Brien said in a statement. “It is likely that thousands more will have no choice but to flee, should fighting continue to spread and intensify over the coming days.”
“The parties to the conflict in Syria have shown time and again that they are willing to take any action to secure military advantage – even if it means killing, maiming or starving civilians into submission in the process,” O’Brien said, putting blame on both rebels and the government.
Led by the United States, the West has sought in vain for months to work with Russia to implement a sustainable ceasefire among a multitude of armed groups and the Syrian regime, in order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian deliveries and open a political dialogue to end the war.
But Russian and Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have emboldened the regime and changed the situation on the battlefield. Rebel factions are on their heels along multiple fronts, and a defeat in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub before the war, would be a devastating blow to their bid to oust Assad. Absent Aleppo, the armed opposition will increasingly be a rural yet still powerful insurgency.
Russia and Syrian forces are reportedly aiming to retake all of Aleppo while the United States is in a weak position to act, with US President Barack Obama sitting as lame duck president ahead of Donald Trump taking over the White House on January 20.
Trump has hinted he will pursue a new US policy in Syria, including closer cooperation with Russia against the “Islamic State” and ending support for Western backed rebels he views as radical Islamists. According to a Institute for the Study of War report of rebel groups published in March, about three-quarters of the main “powerbroker” groups, a force of about 90,000 fighters, are composed of political Islamists and jihadists of various stripes.
The fall of Aleppo is likely to strengthen jihadists within the Syrian opposition as any remaining moderate forces move closer to jihadist factions with more military might, in particular the Front for the Conquest of the Levant, formerly the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, the hardline Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham and other radical factions.