With Assad On Verge Of Historic Victory, Syrian Rebels Request A Ceasefire
After nearly six years, Syria’s civil war started under Hillary Clinton’s watch in March 2011 during the Arab Spring protest, is finally coming to an end.
The battle for one of the most contested Syrian cities during the war, Aleppo – which was Syria’s most populous city before the war – is almost over and the “rebel forces” who live in the city eastern part, realizing they are on the verge of losing, have finally come to the negotiating table but it is too late.
Recall that as we reported last week, the Syrian army had recaptured as much as as 40% of the militant held part of the city in an accelerating attack that threatens to crush the opposition in its most important urban stronghold. As of today, that number has nearly doubled. According to the Russian Reconciliation Center which is facilitating and overseeing the Syrian civil war, government forces have liberated 15 more eastern Aleppo neighborhoods in the last 24 hours, adding that the advance has allowed the Syrian Army to evacuate 1,200 residents of the city. The Syrian authorities now “fully control 50 neighborhoods in the eastern part of [Aleppo] that account for 70 percent of the territory that was initially controlled by the militants.”
So facing the imminent loss of their most important stronghold, the Syrian rebels in besieged eastern Aleppo called on Wednesday for an immediate five-day ceasefire and the evacuation of civilians and wounded, but gave no indication they were ready to withdraw as demanded by Damascus and Moscow.
In a statement calling for the truce, the rebels made no mention of evacuating the several thousand fighters who are defending an ever shrinking area of eastern Aleppo. However, Syria and Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have said they want rebels to leave Aleppo and will not consider a ceasefire unless that happens according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, Assad’s forces are piling on the pressure: “It’s been a tragedy here for a long time, but I’ve never seen this kind of pressure on the city – you can’t rest for even five minutes, the bombardment is constant,” a resident said. “Any movement in the streets and there is bombardment (on that area) immediately,” said the east Aleppo resident contacted by Reuters, who declined to be identified. Fear gripped the remaining residents as food and water supplies were cut off.
The rebels have suffered a series of staggering losses in Aleppo over the past 10 days or so as Assad’s Russian-backed forces have captured neighborhoods the opposition had controlled since 2012. Rebel-held areas of Aleppo have shrunk to about a third of their former size, the WSJ reports.
In addition to being a critical catalyst in the war, one which would shift the balance of power toward Assad’s regime, retaking Aleppo would also be a success for Vladimir Putin who intervened to save Moscow’s ally in September 2015 with air strikes, and for Shi’ite Iran, whose elite Islamic Republic Guard Corps has suffered casualties fighting for Assad. As such, the Syrian government now appears closer to victory than at any point in the five years since protests against Assad evolved into an armed rebellion.
* * *
Tasting victory, outside of Aleppo the government and its allies are also putting severe pressure on remaining rebel redoubts. “The decision to liberate all of Syria is taken and Aleppo is part of it,” Assad said in a newspaper interview, according to pro-Damascus television station al-Mayadeen. He described the city as the “last hope” of rebels and their backers.
The Syrian army now controls all of the Old City of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site including the Umayyad Mosque, which had been held by rebels, the Observatory said. Explosions and artillery fire could be heard on Syrian state television in districts around the citadel which overlooks the Old City as the army pressed its offensive. More neighborhoods were expected to fall but rebels were fighting ferociously.
Rebels have lost control of about 75 percent of their territory in eastern Aleppo in under 10 days, Director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdulrahman, said. It is their desperation that brought the rebels to the negotiating table: the “humanitarian initiative” published by rebels called for the evacuation of around 500 critical medical cases.
Realizing it has all the leverage, the Kremlin has refused to comply with the proposed truce, however it said on Wednesday that a potential U.S.-Russia deal to allow Syrian rebels to leave Aleppo safely was still on the agenda. Damascus and Moscow have been calling on rebels to withdraw from the city, disarm and accept safe passage out, a procedure that has been carried out in other areas where rebels abandoned besieged territory in recent months.
To move the proposal forward, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Kerry in Hamburg on Wednesday at 8 p.m. local (1900 GMT). A U.S. official said they were likely to discuss safe passage for rebels out of Aleppo. However, as of a couple of days ago, moderate opposition groups with whom U.S. officials had been in contact were “less than inclined” to make any such deals, the official said, on condition of anonymity. Lavrov will also meet with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Russian agencies reported.
Meanwhile, on Monday, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a week-long ceasefire. Moscow correctly said rebels used such pauses in the past to reinforce. The Syrian army’s advance is a “strategic victory” that will prevent foreign intervention and alter the political process, Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar told reporters in Damascus.
“Those who believed in the Syrian triumph, know that (the rebels’) morale is at its lowest and that these collapses that have begun are like domino tiles,” he said. But perhaps most surprising, was that an official with an Aleppo rebel group, who declined to be named, told Reuters the United States appeared to have no position on the Syrian army assault on Aleppo, just weeks before U.S. President-elect Donald Trump takes office. In other words, both Assad and Putin are taking advantage of the political power vacuum in the US to finally push the remaining rebels out of their hideout and end the war once and for all.
“The Russians want the fighters out and they (the Americans) are ready to coordinate over that”, said the Turkey-based official, citing indirect contacts with U.S. officials.
* * *
There is one final factor which effectively assures an Assad victory: the weather. As winter sets in, siege conditions are increasingly desperate, exacerbated by increasing numbers of displaced residents and food and water shortages. A U.N. official said on Wednesday about 31,500 people from east Aleppo have been displaced around the entire city over the past week, with hundreds more seen on the move on Wednesday.
Yet few rebels had quit Aleppo so far, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who as has often been the case, described those were left there as “terrorists” who were uniting around fighters from the group formerly known as the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.
Civilians wanting to leave east Aleppo should be evacuated to the northern Aleppo countryside, rather than Idlib province, the rebel document said. Idlib is dominated by Islamist groups including Fateh al-Sham, the group formerly known as the Nusra Front, and is facing intense bombardment by Russian warplanes. On the other hand, “Russia wants to move them to Idlib. The fighters have a choice: survive for an extra couple of weeks by going to Idlib or fight to the very end and die in Aleppo,” one senior European diplomat, who declined to be named, said. “For the Russians it’s simple. Place them all in Idlib and then they have all their rotten eggs in one basket.”
On Russian-U.S. talks, the diplomat said: “The assumption is that the U.S. has influence on the ground. I don’t think that’s the case.” Which means that the US has essentially given up and has handed over victory in Syria’s half-decaded long proxy war to Putin. He will be delighted to accept.