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The Fall of Aleppo City* (October – December 2016)
Dead End for Kerry-Lavrov Negotiations
The clouds of war started gathering after the fall of Lavrov-Kerry agreement that aimed to cease hostilities in Aleppo. The fall of the
ceasefire agreement was followed by intensified bombing on eastern Aleppo, and periodic attacks towards western Aleppo. Blames exchanged between Russia and the United States diplomats for breaking the agreement highlighted the fragmentation and fragility of this agreement and the lack of leverage over their allies on the ground. The resumption of violence caused a mass scale damage and deterioration of living conditions in Aleppo and gave a space to armed opposition forces especially Jabhat al-Nusra to carry out further attacks.
Although rebel groups managed to break the siege in eastern Aleppo earlier in August 2016, which allowed food and ammunition to come in the eastern part, the humanitarian situation deteriorated, and the level of deprivation inflicted upon inhabitants of eastern Aleppo increased till the fall of the city in December 2016. In continuation of the regime’s strategy “Surrender or We Wipe You Out,” bids for an urgent intervention to stop the annihilation of eastern Aleppo and its people went in vain.
Failing International Efforts to Break the Siege
The heavy bombardment on eastern Aleppo pushed Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) to demand the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to stop aerial bombardments on the city of Aleppo since it was killing hundreds of civilians. In line with GCC calls, the UNSC rejected two resolution drafts, one submitted by France and Spain and the other submitted by the Russian Federation, to solve the situation in Aleppo leaving the issue unsolved.
Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhet al-Nusra was a key a hindrance for any solution. Its presence served as a pretext for the regime to carpet bomb eastern Aleppo. In November, De Mistura addressed Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in eastern Aleppo offering them to leave the city under his protection. Russia responded accordingly by assuring the safety of the thin corridors/checkpoints it had opened in four different districts around the city. But Jabhet al-Nusra refused to leave the city. Civilians also had little trust in Russian-Syrian monitored corridor. Only a few took the risk of getting shot when passing. Alternatively, the UNSC came up with a different suggestion which proposed maintaining the rebel-held areas of Aleppo under the opposition control and rebel administration if al-Nusra fighters leave the city. This proposal got rejected by the Syrian government stating that such move would violate its national sovereignty.
Clouds of War
On 19 September, a UN aid convey near Aleppo was bombed. The United States and Russia exchanged accusations for not facilitating the aid delivery and breaking the ceasefire deal. The Russians accused Washington of failing to control the rebels, while Washington accused Russians for having no leverage over the Syrian regime. As a result of these accusations and the growing discontent between Russia and the United States, on 3 October, the US suspended the bilateral talks with Russia and accused it of the failure in assuring the adherence of the regime to the agreement. Additionally, the US froze the US-Russian joint implementation center, which was meant to coordinate military operations from the air on Islamic State troops in Syria, and intelligence information sharing. Shortly before this announcement, the Russian president announced the suspension of a plutonium clean up the treaty between Moscow and Washington which was designed to ensure that both superpowers worked to reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons-grade plutonium and dispose of it safely.
Despite this quarrel over talks between the US and Russia were resumed on 15 October 2016 in the city of Lausanne. This reflected the lack of options DC had to alleviate the bombing on Aleppo. Although the two parties showed optimism, these talks did not yield a shared vision towards stopping the bombardment of the city of Aleppo which was a deadlock for the Russian-American talks and turned events into the direction of military action.
The United States showed determination towards reaching an agreement with Russia, but the surrounding circumstances were suggesting the opposite. Although Obama and John Kerry were pushing for cooperation, officers in the intelligence refused to share information with Russia, and the same took place in Moscow. Additionally, in its last days, Obama administration seemed of little power to abide by a promise which they were not uncertain of fulfilling.
How did Aleppo Fall?
On 21 October, Jabhet al-Nusra refused De Mistura’s offer to evacuate the city, Nour ad-Din al-Zanki group in collaboration with the United Rebel Army, which was founded in Aleppo in 2015 and included a large number of rebel organizations including the Levant Front, Faylaq al-Sham (Sham Legion), and other, but it excluded Nusra fighters, announced the beginning of a battle to liberate the whole city. The plan was to launch simultaneous offensives from inside the city, eastern part, and outside, the countryside. Rebels based in the countryside, primarily Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) and Fatah Halab coalition (Aleppo conquest), tried to break the siege by opening a long frontline along the south-western shores of the regime-held areas. On 28 October, they briefly captured Dahiet al-Assad district and al-Assad artillery academy and started attacking adjacent areas of 1070 and 3000 Housing Project districts. This area was central to the regime due to its sensitive location between the major military bases of the Assad Academy and the al-Ramouseh Military Complex, as well as lying on the only road connecting Aleppo to the rest of regime-held Syria. Simultaneously, rebels opened another front from the countryside and fired more than 150 shells. Rebels, trapped in the eastern part of the city made their bid to break the siege and help the forces fighting outside the city by shelling parts in western Aleppo as a sort of distraction to the regime forces.
Despite rebels’ initial gains, regime’s intense bombardment and substantial help it received from Hezbollah rebels prevented rebels’ from advancing or hold their newly gained positions. On 3 November, the opposition made its last attempt to
break the siege by relaunching an attack on 3000 Housing Project district and al-Assad military academy, but their assault was repelled. Their failure made eastern Aleppo’s fall inevitable.
By the end of November, rebel forces lost control over Hanano housing district which was a symbol of the Syrian revolution since it was the first district that came under revolutionary forces control in 2012. The besieged rebels announced the formation of the Aleppo Army, on 1 December, to face the threat. This attempt was not just late, it also was not efficient as the fragmentation remained under the title of the new coalition. More importantly, Turkey’s “abandoning” of the rebels in eastern Aleppo, their counterparts withdrawal from the Aleppo countryside and Jabhet al-Nusra’s intrepid and short-sighted decision to stay in the city left the future of Aleppo at regime’ and Russia’s mercy.
Assad forces kept gaining ground in Karm al-Qaterji, Karm al-Myassar, ash-Sha’ar, and the Old city of Aleppo districts. By the end of the siege, districts of an-Nayrab, as-Salheen, as-Sakhour, and Sheikh Kheder fell. In December, with the support of the YPG in ash-Sheikh Maqsoud district, Assad forces recaptured the whole north-eastern part of Aleppo. This part included the districts of al-Hellok, Bustan al-Basha, and Ayn at-Tal.
Left with no options, rebel groups in eastern Aleppo started negotiations with Russia to save themselves and civilians since regime’s return seemed inevitable. Turkey facilitated the ceasefire talks between them. With the internal changes the American administration was witnessing, the United States stayed out of these talks. This made the opposition more lenient towards cooperating with Russia and Turkey who were in a more powerful position vis-à-vis the rebels. The following days in December showed some fluctuations in the deal due to the tension
that emerged between the Turkey and Russia as a result of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statements on overthrowing Assad. After few days, the two sides agree on a ceasefire by 13 December 2016 which necessitated that Russia and regime forces were to stop bombardment in return for evacuation of rebels, as well as those civilians who did not want to live under the regime, to Idlib.
Eviction processes were interrupted because the agreement was broken after regime forces continued shelling eastern Aleppo. Thus, Russia and Turkey negotiated another ceasefire agreement which came into force on 14 December night, and eviction started on 15 December 2016. During the whole process of negotiation, Iran – whose militias had a strong presence around Aleppo – was largely left out. Therefore, as a show of its power and leverage on the ground, on 14 December it introduced new terms for letting the evacuation happen. It insisted on the evacuation of the wounded civilians from Foua and Kafraya – besiege pro-government enclave in the rebel-held Idlib governorate with a majority of Shi’a Muslim population. This play by Iran showed that despite Russia’s dominance of the Syrian case in the international arena, on the ground, Iran played a major role through its militias.
Under the Russian-Turkish sponsored agreement, 184 buses left eastern Aleppo carrying approximately 35,000 people who remained in the eastern part of Aleppo until the last days of the siege. Reports, videos by activists on the ground from Aleppo, and news pieces reflected that some of the people on buses leaving eastern Aleppo left to regime-held areas. The majority of those who stayed on the buses were taken to the western countryside of Aleppo and Idlib province. The process was facilitated by the Committee of Red Cross, and UN humanitarian mission in Syria. The first wave of eviction was to the rebel-held territory to the west of Aleppo. The agreement also stated that fighters would be evicted from eastern Aleppo after the second or the third convoy.
The eviction was no smooth processes. It went on and off amidst accusations between the fighting sides for violating the ceasefire and hindering the evacuation process. Hezbollah’s and Iranian militias central role in monitoring the evacuation process slowed down the process. On the other side, One major incident took place on 18 December, when rebels [do we know who exactly?] burned down buses that were going to evacuate the wounded from Foua and Kafraya to Aleppo. Ultimately, by 22 December, officials announced the completion of eviction, and rebel leaders announced that all rebels left eastern Aleppo.
According to OCHA reports, as of 23 December 2016, at least 53,773 have been displaced from eastern Aleppo to Government controlled areas and other 98 different locations as suggested by a UNHCR report.
The Humanitarian Situation, From Terrible to Terrifying
Bombardments on eastern Aleppo tactically targeted infrastructure including power stations, bakeries, water pumping stations, hospitals and civil defense centers. By 1 October M2 and M10 hospitals, major medical facilities, in eastern Aleppo were attacked. Besides the barrel and cluster bombs the Syrian army used, on 1 October, the regime used phosphorous bombs in eastern Aleppo which caused huge damage to targeted buildings and state of horror and panic among civilians. These bombs created a state of horror and panic among civilians and civil defense volunteers in neighborhoods of ash-Sha’ar, al-Hellok, as-Sakhour, al-Haidariya, and Ba’aedeen who tried in vain to extinguish these fires.
Since the beginning of November, there was heavy unleashing of military aggression on the rebel-held parts of Aleppo and the surrounding rural areas. This led to a devastating humanitarian situation for civilians. Although the inhabitants of eastern Aleppo managed to get food and medications supplies in eastern Aleppo by the end of August, and October through the brief break through the siege in the southwestern part of Aleppo, and in November, food, and medicines were also smuggled to eastern Aleppo from the YPG held Sheikh Maqsoud. In spite of these attempts to relief, the deprivation inflicted upon inhabitants of eastern Aleppo, the lack of supply, accompanied with consistent if not increasing and inelastic levels of demand for nutrients and medications caused prices to soar up. Due to the government’s tight grip on the eastern part of Aleppo and blockage of aid, the UN issued a bleak warning that the 250,000 citizens trapped in Aleppo besieged areas were at the risk of starvation. In mid-November, Jan Egeland, the head of the UN-backed humanitarian task force for Syria announced that “the last remaining food rations were given out to rebel-held areas by the second week of November,” he further asserted that the food distribution could not be sustained since the resupply was impossible. Alternatively, Syrian activists called for the use of parachutes to drop aid packages on the besieged parts of Aleppo instead of the aid convoys that were usually not permitted by the government to enter eastern Aleppo or bombarded at the corridors. Besides the food shortages, the city has been suffering from gas shortage, electricity, and water cuts.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, (SNHR), the Syrian regime, in 2016 alone, dropped 12,958-barrel bombs in Syria. Most of these barrel bombs were dropped in Damascus suburbs governorate, Aleppo was second most hit. In November, the Assad regime used chlorine gas in Aleppo. This represents a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention which prohibits the use, production, transfer, stockpiling and retention of mass destruction weapons.
The regime continuously carpet-bombed the rebel-held areas of Aleppo using globally prohibited weapons. The attacks on Aleppo province by different groups, during the period from 1 October, 2016 to December 22, 2016, resulted in the murder of 460 people by the government forces, 685 people by the Russian Federation forces, 253 people by opposition factions, 58 people by international coalition forces, 13 people were killed by self-managed groups, 7 by ISIS, 50 others by unidentified groups.
Western Aleppo also suffered from different offensives directed towards it, bearing in mind the difference in scale, intensity and severity. On 28 October, although rebel groups repeatedly criticized regime tactics in targeting civilian areas in eastern Aleppo, they launched an indiscriminate attack towards west Aleppo. As a result of the attack, 48 people including 17 children have been killed. Moreover, rebel forces committed similar atrocities to the regime forces as they used chemical weapons in their attack on western Aleppo.
* This report benefited from generous remarks by Armenak Tokmajyan and fellows of The Aleppo Project.
 Miles, Tom, Syrian Opposition Says Aleppo Battle Hides Cleansing of Siege Towns, Reuters, September 2016
 Orient, GCC states call on UN to intervene to stop Aleppo carnage, Orient News Agency, October 2nd, 2016
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 Jaysh al-Fatah, Army of Conquest, was formed by al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other troops in early 2015. Fatah Halab coalition consisted of several groups such as, Levant front, the Authenticity and Development front, among others.
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https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-aleppo-idUSKBN133125; Abd Al-Rahman Sadeq, Aleppo: The Besiegement, its resistance, and the Grand Eviction, Al Jumhuriya, December 15, 2016 (in Arabic)
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 AbdulRahman, Shayah, A., Parachutes: For Aid, not Bombs-JPADS are Safe and Urgently Needed for Besieged Aleppo, the Aleppo Project, December 2, 2016
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http://sn4hr.org/wp-content/pdf/english/1106_civilians_were_killed_in_October_2016_en.pdf; SNHR, November Statistical Report, Syrian Network for Human Rights, December 1, 2016
http://sn4hr.org/wp-content/pdf/english/1402_Killing_of_civilians_in_November_2016_en.pdf; SNHR, 2016 Statistical report: Including December Detailed Numbers, Syrian Network for Human Rights, January 1, 2017 http://sn4hr.org/wp-content/pdf/english/16913_civilians_killed_in_2016_en.pdf; Another source suggests that the total number of people who died in eastern Aleppo mounted to 871 people. This database provides names of the victims, details related to the cause of death, and to which group the victims belonged. The same criticism to the victims’ numbers could be applied on this database as well.
 Amnesty, Syria: Armed opposition groups must end unlawful attacks in western Aleppo, Amnesty International, October 31, 2016