Rebels seek ceasefire with Syrian army closer to retaking Aleppo
BEIRUT – 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.
The Syrian army and allied forces have made rapid gains against insurgents in the past two weeks and look closer than ever to restoring full control over Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city before the war, and achieving their most important victory of the conflict now in its sixth year.
In a statement, the rebels called for talks about the future of the city once the humanitarian situation has been improved, but made no mention of evacuating fighters who are defending an ever shrinking area of eastern Aleppo.
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.
“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
Retaking Aleppo would also be a success for President 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.
The government now appears closer to victory than at any point since 2012, the year after rebels took up arms to overthrow Assad in a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, made more than half of Syrians homeless and created the world’s worst refugee crisis.
Outside of Aleppo, the government and its allies are also putting severe pressure on remaining rebel redoubts.
In what appears to be the final days of the rebellion in Aleppo, the rebels, including groups that have received U.S. support to fight Assad, say they have been abandoned to their fate by states that have backed the opposition to Assad.
Rebels had 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.
ARMY RETAKES OLD CITY
The Observatory said on Wednesday the Syrian army had seized control of all parts of the Old City of Aleppo which had been held by rebels. It said the army advance on Tuesday and overnight, which was supported by air strikes and shelling, caused insurgents to withdraw from the historic Old City, including from the area around the historic Umayyad Mosque.
There was fierce fighting in surrounding neighbourhoods on Wednesday as the army pressed its offensive.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Hamburg on Wednesday, Russian news agencies reported. Lavrov will also meet with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the agencies reported.
The Kremlin 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. Moscow wants negotiations with Washington to facilitate such an evacuation.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry said it would accept no truce at this point in Aleppo, should any outside parties try to negotiate one unless all the terrorist groups there depart. Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on Monday calling for a week-long ceasefire. Moscow said rebels used such pauses in the past to reinforce.
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.
“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 overnight.
While rebels say they could fend off the offensive for some time to come, the fighting is complicated by tens of thousands of civilians sheltering in the rebel-held area, many of them related to the fighters, the official said.
“The civilian burden is very heavy, in a small area.”
The east Aleppo resident who has lived in the city throughout the war, said he, like many families, has fled his home because of the government advance.
“I shelter in the basement of the house I’m staying in; but in a bombardment that happened the day before yesterday a missile hit a five-storey building and drilled right into the basement,” he told Reuters.
“VERY DISASTROUS” SIEGE
As winter sets in, siege conditions are increasingly desperate, exacerbated by increasing numbers of displaced residents and food and water shortages. The United Nations called the situation “very disastrous”.
“The weather’s very cold, dangerously so, yesterday it went below zero. And when people were fleeing … they came under shelling, many people were killed,” the Aleppo resident said.
“There is no electricity at all, no drinking water. People who have bottles of water are drinking from that, others drinking from wells … There are families who have not had bread for three days.”
Very few rebels had quit Aleppo so far, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who described those who were left there as “terrorists” who were uniting around fighters from the group formerly known as the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.
But eastern Aleppo is widely seen by analysts of the Syria conflict as a bastion of the moderate opposition to Assad, which has maintained that jihadists have little presence in the city.
The “humanitarian initiative” document published by rebels called for the evacuation of around 500 critical medical cases.
Civilians wanting to leave east Aleppo should be evacuated to the northern Aleppo countryside, rather than Idlib province, it 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.
Fighters and civilians from rebel-held areas around Syria have often previously been transferred to rebel-held Idlib under settlement agreements reached with the Syrian army. But the rebel document said Idlib was too dangerous due to intense air strikes, and was unable to cope with more displaced persons.
As a result of recent gains, Aleppo’s local government has started to re-open the Aleppo airport road, Syrian state media said, as government steps to reunite the city under its control gathered pace. –Reuters