Syrian government forces set to regain control of Aleppo

UN official says offensive by Assad forces ‘a complete meltdown of humanity’

Syrian residents fleeing the conflict that has so far taken some 400,000 lives, displaced 11 million people and left much of Syria ravaged beyond all recognition. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Syrian residents fleeing the conflict that has so far taken some 400,000 lives, displaced 11 million people and left much of Syria ravaged beyond all recognition. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

Syrian government forces were poised to retake control of Aleppo on Tuesday night after years of bombardment and a four-month siege in the rebel-held east of the city culminated in a ferocious offensive that crushed opposition resistance in its last urban stronghold.

Forces loyal to Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, killed at least 82 civilians, according to the United Nations officials, one of whom called the bloodshed “a complete meltdown of humanity”.

The rout of rebels from eastern Aleppo was followed by reports of atrocities and sparked a mass flight of civilians and insurgents in bitter weather. “The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes,” said UN spokesman Rupert Colville. “There could be many more.”

After days of incessant Syrian bombardment, supported by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, rebels said a ceasefire agreed with government forces was to begin late on Tuesday and would include the evacuation of combatants and civilians. Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said the evacuation was only for fighters.

Ravaged

The deal, reportedly brokered with Turkish involvement, would signal Damascus’s biggest battlefield victory since an uprising against Assad’s rule set off a civil war – and in turn a regional proxy war – almost six years ago. The conflict has so far taken some 400,000 lives, displaced 11 million people and left much of Syria ravaged beyond all recognition.

Photographs, videos and eyewitness testimony emerging from eastern Aleppo showed a wasteland of flattened buildings, concrete rubble and pock-marked walls. Tens of thousands had lived in the besieged sector in recent weeks even after medical and rescue services had collapsed and food supplies had run dangerously low.

Four eastern Aleppo residents contacted by The Irish Times on Tuesday did not respond to messages. Mr Colville said the last rebel-held sliver of the city amounted to “a hellish corner” of less than a square kilometre, while Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the United Nations office co-ordinating emergency relief, called the events in Aleppo “a complete meltdown of humanity”.

The Syrian army denied carrying out killings or torture among those captured, and its main ally Russia said on Tuesday rebels had “kept over 100,000 people as human shields”.

At a meeting of the UN Security Council in New York, Mr Churkin said the Russian-based Syrian military operation would end “in the next few hours”. He said all militants, together with members of their families and the injured, were being allowed to leave the city, but denied that civilians were included in the deal as “nobody is going to harm the civilians”.

The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, told the council that the Syrian government and its allies Russia and Iran bore responsibility for killings of civilians in Aleppo.

Inaction

Denouncing the inaction of the security council in the face of the slaughter, outgoing UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said it had “collectively failed the people of Syria” by not fulfilling its responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. “History will not easily absolve us,” he said.

The fall of Aleppo, pre-war Syria’s largest city, would leave the rebels with only the northern province of Idlib and a few isolated pockets of territory in Aleppo and Homs provinces and around the capital, Damascus. The rebel loss underlines the failure of US efforts to contain the carnage from Syria’s civil war and confirms the scale of the shift in momentum towards Damascus since the Russian military intervened at its side last year.

However, while the loss of Aleppo marks a major reversal for the rebels, including groups backed by the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies, as well as jihadist groups that the West does not support, the war will be far from over.

“The crushing of Aleppo, the immeasurably terrifying toll on its people, the bloodshed, the wanton slaughter of men, women and children, the destruction – and we are nowhere near the end of this cruel conflict,” UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said.

As the bombardment of eastern Aleppo continued, meanwhile, the French government said it was “deeply concerned” about reports of a chemical attack in the eastern suburbs of the city of Hama on Monday.