The off-and-on evacuation of civilians and fighters from opposition-controlled eastern Aleppo has exposed serious divisions between dominant radical fundamentalists and local armed groups. Factionalism peaked at the weekend when jihadis torched buses that had been dispatched to evacuate the sick and wounded from the besieged pro-government Shia villages of Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province, which is controlled by al-Qaeda's Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front.
This group not only opposes the deal providing for the evacuation of eastern Aleppo in exchange for partial relief for Foua and Kefraya, but also the withdrawal from Aleppo, which is now under the control of the Syrian regime.
UN sources in Damascus told The Irish Times in early October that at least half the civilians in eastern Aleppo – which was then under the control of insurgents and fighters from local groups – wanted to depart the embattled sector of the city but were barred from doing so by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and an allied group, Ahrar al-Sham.
These groups had intended to relieve eastern Aleppo by military means and mounted operations with this objective in August and October.
In mid-November, the Syrian army, bolstered by Iranian and Iraqi Shia fighters and Russian air power, launched an all-out offensive to regain Aleppo’s eastern districts, but hardliners were determined to remain in spite of the increasing hardship suffered by civilians.
Fighters who have already left eastern Aleppo are likely to belong to groups opposed to the radicals. Some may have opted for government amnesty rather than risk the Jabhat’s wrath in Idlib.
Initial demands for reform
While many Syrians supported demonstrators’ initial demands for reform and an end to corruption at the outset of the Syrian conflict in 2011, most did not back the armed elements who emerged soon after protests began.
Unemployed youths were recruited by gang bosses who angered civilians living in their areas by attacking troops and police and engaging in criminal activities. Political militants generally belonged to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which had a small underground presence in Syria, or to factions associated with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army.
The entry into the conflict of the Nusra Front in early 2012 and of Islamic State in 2013 led to the takeover of the armed opposition by competing radical Salafis who adhere to Saudi Arabia’s narrow, puritanical Wahhabi ideology and seek to transform secular Syria into a medieval religious state.
Secular Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Druze, Alawites and Shias, who, combined, are at least two-thirds of the population, abhor the radicals. Many civilians fled areas captured by them and made for government-held cities and towns or left Syria entirely.
At present, an estimated 75-80 per cent of Syrians still in the country live in areas held by Damascus, even if they do not like the government.
Eastern Aleppo fighters and their families are being taken to Idlib to join thousands of militants who have left other areas where sieges have been lifted following negotiations with the government. Civilian evacuees are being bussed to a staging area in the southwestern Ramouseh industrial zone, where they decide whether to proceed to Idlib or to insurgent-held villages north of Aleppo, or to government-controlled western Aleppo, which had a population of 1-1.2 million before the influx from the east began.
Resources are under great strain in all these locations.