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Syria Crisis: Battle for Syria’s Aleppo Heats Up as Rebels Press Offensive

The Russian military has reported that fewer than 200 civilians and 69 militants have fled down the corridors

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People walk on the rubble of a site hit by a barrel bomb in the rebel-held area of Old Aleppo, Syria, July 11, 2016. Image source: Reuters
  • At least 6,000 people have been either killed or injured in the past 80 days in Aleppo, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group
  • Analysts believe the battle for Aleppo will have major repercussions, impacting the dynamics of the long-running war
  • Rebels say they have made fast and quick progress with their southern offensive

Despite more than 80 consecutive days of sustained bombardment of rebel-held Aleppo, civilians are barely using humanitarian corridors to flee the war-shattered Syrian city.

A few dozen families have trickled out of Aleppo using the corridors established over the weekend by the Syrian regime, which has been trying to tighten the noose around eastern parts of the city held by opposing rebels since 2012. The Russian military has reported that fewer than 200 civilians and 69 militants have fled down the corridors.

The tiny number that has taken the opportunity to escape is the testimony to the determination of defenders and civilians remaining in rebel-held eastern districts to resist the onslaught, say activists. Up to a quarter of a million people remain in the Syria’s onetime commercial capital.

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But some residents in conversations over Skype with VOA say some families who would like to flee, are afraid of using the four humanitarian corridors that lead into regime-controlled territory because they fear being detained – as happened in Homs in 2014 when there were mass disappearances among those who took up a government offer to leave the then-besieged city.

FILE - Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad walk with their weapons past rubble after they advanced on the southern side of the Castello Road in Aleppo, Syria, in this handout picture by SANA, July 28, 2016. Image source: Reuters
FILE – Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad walk with their weapons past rubble after they advanced on the southern side of the Castello Road in Aleppo, Syria, in this handout picture by SANA, July 28, 2016. Image source: Reuters

Assad regime and Russian media outlets have claimed rebels are preventing civilians from leaving – a claim residents contacted by VOA dispute.

U.S. officials say the government offer for civilians to flee is an attempt to depopulate rebel-controlled areas, making it easier for the regime to seize them and to further demonstrate the dramatic shift of fortunes in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favour since Moscow launched its military intervention on his behalf last year.

Little hero

At least 6,000 people have been either killed or injured in the past 80 days in Aleppo, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.

Among those killed was a child actor who became famous as the star of a black comedy about life in the war-ravaged city of Aleppo. Almost 30 episodes were made; the filming itself was an act of defiance amid the daily bombardments.

In a still from the filming of the sitcom that made him famous, Qusai Abtini. Image source: www.bbc.com
In a still from the filming of the sitcom that made him famous, Qusai Abtini. Image source: www.bbc.com

Fourteen-year-old Qusai Abtini was killed last month in July after his father decided they should leave the city. The child star of the first sit-com produced in the rebel-held territory was famous for his toothy grin. The car he was travelling in was struck by four rockets as the family tried to leave before government forces seized the last remaining major route out of the city.

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At a symbolic funeral for the child actor – a video was posted online –  his father is seen sitting in a wheelchair holding a placard reading, “Qusai, Abu Abdu the Aleppan. You are a little hero. You scared the regime with your giant acts so they killed you.”

Surprise offensive

The deaths are not only coming on the rebel side, although the vast number is among insurgents and their civilian supporters. Monitors said Tuesday, August 2, that at least 30 people, including children and women, were killed in government-controlled areas from recent shelling by rebel forces.

The shells, targeting surrounding areas controlled by the Syrian regime near rebel districts, were part of a major, surprise offensive to break the siege launched Sunday by a mixture of Free Syrian Army militias and an alliance of mainly Islamist rebels — this time in southern Aleppo.

The Islamist alliance led by Jabhat Fatah al Sham (known as Jabhat al-Nusra prior to the group’s July 28 claimed split from al-Qaida) has managed to capture two south Aleppo villages and a military centre used by pro-Assad Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.

For nearly a month, rebels have tried unsuccessfully to break the siege by seizing back control of the Castello Road, a major road into opposition-held east Aleppo that links to routes into rebel-held territory to the north and west of the city. Last week the rebels came close.

Russian help

The insurgents’ offensive south clearly took regime forces off guard, pushing them back several kilometres and according to the pro-regime media outlet Al-Masdar, forcing the Russian air force to “come to the aid of the government forces in southern Aleppo.”

Analysts believe the battle for Aleppo will have major repercussions, impacting the dynamics of the long-running war.  “The siege of Aleppo looks set to be a major pivot point in the Syrian crisis,” says Charles Lister, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

He adds: “While Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015 transformed the balance of power on the ground, it was a later Iranian push from early-2016 that facilitated the siege of Aleppo itself. As Iranian-backed pro-regime forces steadily closed in on key strangle points like the Castello Road, Russia saw itself gradually sucked into a battle in which its airpower is now a crucially important factor. Now that the siege is in place, no party to the pro-regime alliance can afford to let it slip.

“Whatever the ultimate outcome, further military escalation and civilian suffering in Aleppo promises only to make political efforts to solve Syria’s crisis even harder,” he says.

Rebels say they have made fast and quick progress with their southern offensive. Their aim is to capture a major regime artillery base, another 2.5 kilometres from their new frontline in the south-west of the city.

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Syria Uses Familiar Tactic in Rebel Idlib: Bombing Civilians

The United Nations is demanding an immediate end to indiscriminate attacks against civilians

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Syria, Rebel, Idlib
FILE - Destruction is seen around the Udai hospital following airstrikes on the town of Saraqeb in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib, Jan. 29, 2018. VOA

The United Nations is demanding an immediate end to indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure in northwest Syria, warning the warring parties their actions might amount to war crimes.

U.N. agencies say an intense military escalation by Russian-backed Syrian forces and armed rebels in northwest Syria is having a catastrophic impact on the civilian population. Agencies confirm at least 160 civilians have been killed and hundreds more wounded in fighting over recent weeks.

They say 3 million people in Idlib need protection and 300,000 civilians who have fled their homes in the past two months are in imminent danger.

 

Spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Jens Laerke says civilians and civilian infrastructure are coming under daily attack by airstrikes, artillery shelling and barrel bombs.

Syria, Rebel, Idlib
FILE – Damage is seen at a hospital after an airstrike in Deir al-Sharqi village in Idlib province, Syria, April 27 2017. VOA

“Since the 28th of April, there have been 25 confirmed attacks on health care in the northwest, including on 24 health facilities and one ambulance,” he said. “Two of the attacked health facilities were hit more than once, and at least six health workers have been killed.”

Laerke says health care facilities are fully protected under international humanitarian law, and it is illegal to target them. Few health facilities remain intact to care for the sick and wounded, he told VOA.

“Already before the recent months of escalation, the status of health care in Syria at large, and in particular in Idlib, was already appalling,” he said. “Even though those facilities have not been hit, they fear that they may be hit. So, the doctors, the health care personnel are leaving, the patients are not going to those hospitals. Understandably.”

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Laerke says aid agencies are providing food and health services through mobile clinics to people who are newly displaced in northwest Syria. In addition, many schools in the region have been attacked, he says, so catch-up classes are being provided for thousands of children who have been out of school since May. (VOA)