Sunday March 24, 2019
Home Politics Syria Crisis:...

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

0
//
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.

Follow NewsGram on Twitter

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.

Follow NewsGram on Facebook

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.

ALSO READ:

Next Story

U.S.-Backed Syrian Democratic Forces Celebrate The Death Of Self-Declared “Caliphate”

“The threat remains,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter. “The fight against terrorist groups must continue.”

0
Syria
Smoke rises from a strike on Baghuz, the last of the Islamic State group's holdouts in Syria, March 22, 2019. VOA

For consecutive nights, bombs rained down on the last scraps of Islamic State-held territory, lighting up the night sky over the northeastern Syrian town of Baghuz.

By Saturday morning, all that remained was a landscape littered with burned-out vehicles, abandoned campsites and other provisions the last of the terror group’s fighters and their families left behind.

On one of the few buildings that still stood, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces raised their flag and celebrated the death of a self-declared caliphate that inflicted terror and death on the people it tried to rule.

“After five years of fighting, we stand here to declare the physical defeat of ISIS and the end of its public challenge over all humanity,” SDF Director General Mazloum Kobani told officials and coalition partners at a ceremony to mark the long-awaited victory, using an acronym for the group.

FILE - Mazloum Kobani, commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), speaks during an interview in the countryside outside the northwestern Syrian city of Hasakah, in a province of the same name, Jan. 24, 2019.
Mazloum Kobani, commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), speaks during an interview in the countryside outside the northwestern Syrian city of Hasakah, in a province of the same name, Jan. 24, 2019.. VOA

“We announce today the destruction of the so-called Islamic State organization and the end of its ground control in its last pocket in Baghuz region,” he said.

Yet in between the applause and the music of a marching band, SDF commanders and coalition officials paid tribute to the SDF forces, which paid for the victory in blood and treasure — an estimated 11,000 killed in the campaign to roll back IS, which at its height controlled nearly a third of Syria and almost as much of Iraq.

And even until the end, sometime Friday night into Saturday morning, IS put up a vicious defense, using suicide bombers and even children as human shields in an attempt to cling to one last scrap of land over which they could fly their black flag.

The fate of the last of the IS fighters, perhaps several hundred of the terror group’s most hardened and devoted followers, was not clear Saturday.

Observers on the ground said some appeared to have surrendered following the airstrikes that began Thursday night, targeting IS positions next to the Euphrates River and another sliver where IS fighters were backed up against a cliff overlooking the town.

By early Saturday, the airstrikes seemed to focus solely on the area by the cliff, where SDF and coalition officials said the IS fighters might have access to an extensive system of tunnels that helped to hide tens of thousands of people, the last of whom surrendered earlier in the week.

The first indications the fight against IS in Baghuz had ended came early Saturday, said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali, using Twitter to announce the “total elimination of so-called caliphate.”

Only about 12 hours earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump made a similar declaration, telling reporters traveling with him aboard Air Force One that IS had been “100 percent defeated.”

But Trump’s announcement was quickly rejected by U.S. defense officials and the SDF, who said fighting had not yet ended and more airstrikes were being called in.

On Saturday, Trump again hailed the victory over the terror group in Baghuz.

“ISIS’s loss of territory is further evidence of its false narrative, which tries to legitimize a record of savagery that includes brutal executions, the exploitation of children as soldiers, and the sexual abuse and murder of women and children,” he said in a statement.

“While on occasion these cowards will resurface, they have lost all prestige and power,” he added. “They are losers and will always be losers.”

On Saturday, the SDF’s Kobani was careful to note that while IS’s caliphate had finally been brought down, the danger was far from over, with numerous IS “sleeper cells, which continue to present a great danger in our region and the wider world.”

Top U.S. defense and intelligence officials repeatedly have warned that the terror group had long been planning for the demise of its caliphate, and that a clandestine insurgency already had taken root.

“While this is a critical milestone in the fight against ISIS, we understand our work is far from complete,” acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said in a statement. “We will continue our work with the Global Coalition to deny ISIS safe haven anywhere in the world.”

One senior defense official warned IS still has, at minimum, “tens of thousands” of fighters and supporters across Syria and Iraq, and that much of the group’s senior leadership, including self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains at large.

FILE - Men suspected of being Islamic State fighters wait to be searched by members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Baghuz, Syria, Feb. 27, 2019.
Men suspected of being Islamic State fighters wait to be searched by members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Baghuz, Syria, Feb. 27, 2019. VOA

There also are concerns that IS has thousands more supporters and sympathizers — including upward of 60,000 people who have surrendered since the SDF and coalition launched their final assault last month.

So, too, there are concerns about more than 1,000 foreign fighters being held by the SDF, which has asked repeatedly that they be taken back and prosecuted by their home countries.

“These folks are unrepentant,” the official said. “The seeds for a future caliphate or certainly a persistent clandestine insurgency exist in these large numbers of people who … are looking to reposition for future perpetuation of ISIS in some form or fashion.”

Speaking Saturday at the victory ceremony near Baghuz, the U.S. adviser to the coalition pledged Washington would not abandon the SDF or its other partners, even though Trump has said most of the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria will be leaving.

“We will continue to support the coalition’s operations in Syria to ensure this enduring defeat,” William Robak said. “We will do what is necessary in the region, including here in Syria and across the globe, to ensure the defeat of this threat.”

France and Britain also reaffirmed their commitment, though disagreements with the U.S. over the next steps remain.

Also Read: Netflix Testing New Mobile-only Subscription Plan For India

“The threat remains,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter. “The fight against terrorist groups must continue.”

“We will continue to do what is necessary to protect the British people, our allies and partners from the threat Daesh poses,” said Prime Minister Theresa May, using an alternate acronym for IS. (VOA)