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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
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  • 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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The Attention Shifts To The U.S. As It Strikes Down FGM Law

Looking beyond the Michigan case, Jones said the key to stopping FGM isn’t just legislation but also education.

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FILE - A T-shirt warns against female genital mutilation. Its wearer attends an event, discouraging harmful practices such as FGM, at a girls high school in Imbirikani, Kenya, April 21, 2016.Image source: VOA

When a U.S. district judge last month ruled a federal ban on female genital mutilation unconstitutional, he undercut the federal government and alarmed anti-FGM activists, who hope to eradicate the practice.

The World Health Organization calls FGM, also known as female circumcision, a human rights violation of women and girls, with no health benefits.

Some 200 million women and girls around the world, mainly in Africa, have experienced FGM, the WHO says.

In his opinion, Judge Bernard Friedman called FGM “despicable,” but also “a local criminal activity” that must be addressed at the state level. In enacting a federal law, he said, Congress overstepped.

Now, local lawmakers, advocates and newspapers are calling for state bans that equal or surpass the scope of the federal law that was struck down.

Female Genital Mutilation, FGM, judge
A badge reads “The power of labor against FGM” is seen on a volunteer during a conference on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 6, 2018. (VOA)

‘Never again’

The case Friedman ruled on centers around Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, an emergency room physician accused of performing FGM on at least 100 girls in Michigan for more than a decade.

Prosecutors have focused their case on nine girls, aged 7 to 12, from three states. The girls allegedly were subjected to FGM with the aid of Nagarwala and seven others, including the girls’ mothers.

Defense attorneys say the procedure amounted to only a “nick” on the girls performed as part of a religious ritual — not FGM. But they also argued in July that the federal law banning FGM is unconstitutional.

State Senator Rick Jones, who represents Michigan’s 24th district, told VOA by phone that he was shocked to learn about Nagarwala’s case and strongly disagrees with Friedman’s ruling.

Last year, Jones became the spokesperson for a package of bills outlawing FGM statewide. The legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Female Circumcision, FGM
The barbaric practice of genitalia mutilation has been banned in developed nations. Wikimedia

Now, Michigan has some of the toughest FGM laws in the country.

Health-care providers convicted of performing FGM face up to 15 years in prison, along with the permanent loss of their medical licenses. Parents who take their daughters to doctors to be cut can lose custody.

The 1996 federal law, meanwhile, stipulated up to five years in prison and fines for medical providers who perform FGM.

“We wanted to send a strong message around the world: Never again bring your girls to Michigan for this horrible procedure,” Jones said.

Across the U.S., 27 states have passed laws banning FGM, many of which have been written in recent years and include penalties that go beyond the federal law, which also criminalizes so-called “vacation cutting,” the practice of taking girls out of the United States to have FGM performed overseas.

News organizations are among those pushing for an expansion of state laws. Last month, the Seattle Times editorial board called for a ban in Washington, one of 23 states yet to outlaw FGM.

FGM
A doctor checks her phone as she poses for a photograph in Mumbai, India, June 8, 2016. The 50-year-old woman defends what is widely considered female genital mutilation within her small, prosperous Dawoodi Bohra community in India. VOA

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times editorial board said all 50 states should ban the “barbaric” practice, in light of Friedman’s ruling.

Religious ritual?

The health-care providers and families involved in the Michigan case belong to Dawoodi Bohra, a Shi’ite Muslim sect based in India with about 2 million followers worldwide.

According to a study published earlier this year, FGM, called khafd in Dawoodi Bohra communities, is widespread in the sect and involves cutting the clitoral hood or part of the clitoris, without an anesthetic, when girls turn seven.

The study, commissioned by WeSpeakOut, an advocacy group focused on eradicating khafd, also found that three-quarters of Dawoodi Bohra women have experienced FGM.

The severity and nature of FGM can vary.

Health-care providers have identified four types of FGM. Khafd involves Type 1 FGM. Other types involve removing all of the external genitalia and narrowing the vaginal opening.

Jones rejects the idea that there’s a religious basis for the procedure, however it’s performed.

FGM
FILE – A counselor holds up cards used to educate women about female genital mutilation (FGM). VOA

“Across the world, this has been practiced by Christians, pagans, Muslims, even a small Jewish sect in Ethiopia,” he said.

“This is not about a religion,” he added. “This is about men attempting to control women’s behavior by this horrible procedure.”

The WHO identifies both short-term and permanent harms associated with the practice. Immediate concerns include severe pain, infections and, in some cases, death. Long term, women and girls subjected to FGM face a range of physiological and psychological complications that can affect menstruation, childbirth and sexual health.

The United States has been unequivocal in condemning the practice, saying “the U.S. government considers FGM/C to be a serious human rights abuse, and a form of gender-based violence and child abuse” on a fact sheet posted to the Citizenship & Immigration Services website.

Education and legislation

Friedman’s November decision is the latest in a series of setbacks for prosecutors.

Nagarwala spent seven months in 2017 in jail before 16 friends posted a $4.5 million unsecured bond, against the pleas of prosecutors, who argued Nagarwala could silence potential witnesses or even flee the country if released.

FGM
KAMELI, KENYA – AUGUST 12: A Masaai villager displays the traditional blade used to circumcise young girls August 12, 2007 in Kameli, Kenya. Maasai are a pastoral group mostly clustered in the Rift Valley. They practice circumcision on both boys and girls during puberty years as a rite of passage to adulthood. VOA

And in January, the judge dismissed charges that Nagarwala and a second doctor, Fakhruddin Attar, transported minors with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, an offense that carries a lifetime sentence.

Nagarwala still faces conspiracy and obstruction charges that could result in decades in prison.

The trial is now set to begin next April, the Detroit Free Press reported last month. However, the prosecution could appeal last month’s decision, drawing the case out further.

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