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Battle of Aleppo ends - but the war is far from over

14 December

Rebel resistance in Aleppo ended last night after years of fighting and months of bombardment culminated in the bloody collapse of their defences.

A ceasefire deal has seen them agree to withdraw from the Syrian city, but analysts believe the war is 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," said Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

News of the ceasefire came during a heated emergency meeting of the UN's Security Council, which had been prompted by reports of civilians being executed by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

At one point, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, asked if Moscow was "literally incapable of shame".

Russia has repeatedly used its position as a permanent member of the Security Council to block proposed ceasefires in Aleppo.

There were also conflicting reports as to whether a planned evacuation of the city applied to civilians or only rebel fighters.

Vitaly Churkin, Russia's envoy to the UN, said: "Now [Aleppo's] going to be under the control of the Syrian government so there is no need for the remaining civilians to leave and there are humanitarian arrangements in place.

"The agreement is for the fighters to leave. The civilians, they can stay, they can go to safe places, they can take advantage of the humanitarian arrangements that are on the ground. Nobody is going to harm the civilians.

"Our military people who are there are not observing any abuses of international humanitarian law."

But Yasser al-Youssef, from the political office of the Nureddin al-Zinki rebel group, said the agreement included "civilians and fighters with their light weapons".

He added the deal was "sponsored by Russia and Turkey" and would be implemented "within hours".

Yesterday, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson fended off calls for UK intervention to protect civilians in Syria, arguing that Labour MPs were partly to blame for the plight of the country.

Speaking at the end of a two-hour emergency debate in the Commons, in which the government came under sustained criticism for not doing more in Aleppo, Johnson told MPs the 2013 vote to block military action against Assad had led to the UK losing influence.

"We as a House of Commons, we as a country, we vacated that space into which Russia stepped, beginning its own bombing campaign on behalf of Assad," he said. "Ever since that vote, our ability to influence events in Syria or to protect civilians or compel the delivery of aid has been severely limited."

The debate was a good illustration of the "abject powerlessness of national governments - our government - in the face of international crises", said ITV political editor Robert Peston.

'Complete meltdown of humanity in Aleppo,' says UN

13 December

Syrian pro-government forces have been entering homes in the last pockets of Aleppo held by rebels and shooting people on the spot, according to the United Nations.

UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said there was reliable information to suggest that 82 civilians had been killed in four districts of eastern Aleppo, with government forces entering homes and allegedly killing those who tried to flee.

"We're filled with the deepest foreboding for those who remain in this last hellish corner of eastern Aleppo," said Colville. "In these hours, it looks like a complete meltdown of humanity in Aleppo."

The UN children's agency also cited a doctor as saying a building housing as many as 100 unaccompanied children was under heavy attack.

The grim reports came as government forces continued their advance on the last of the rebel-held neighbourhoods in Aleppo.

The Syrian government's ally Russia, which has rejected calls for a humanitarian truce, said any atrocities were "actually being committed by terrorist groups", meaning rebel forces, says the BBC.

But Jan Egeland, the UN humanitarian adviser on Syria, tweeted that the Russian and Syrian governments would be responsible for any abuses.

Brita Haji Hassan, head of the local council of Aleppo, told Al-Jazeera there are now "fewer than 100,000 people in Aleppo city" and those who remain are "squeezed into a small area and are awaiting death".

"They want a safe passage so they could leave. But no one is listening and the whole world is silent," he said.

So far, an evacuation plan for those remaining in Aleppo has not been forthcoming, but a UN source told Middle East Eye that the organisation had been in negotiations with representatives from the Syrian and Russian governments over a 24-hour ceasefire.

According to the source, Russia said it would agree to a ceasefire if those fleeing the besieged areas left their weapons behind.

"Such a move would be unprecedented as civilians evacuated in previous UN-orchestrated operations have been allowed to take small arms with them," says the website.

But those in the besieged areas fear for their safety even if a ceasefire is put in place, said Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr.

"Opposition activists, citizen journalists, and White Helmet volunteers are also there [in opposition-held areas of Aleppo] and, according to the government, engaging in treason. They fear for their safety – for their lives – if they are caught by government forces," she said.

Syrian army close to declaring victory in Aleppo

13 December

Syria's army is in the "last moments before declaring victory" in the battle for Aleppo following the collapse of rebel defences on Monday, a Syrian military source said.

"The battle in eastern Aleppo should end quickly," Lieutenant General Zaid al-Saleh, the head of the government's Aleppo security committee, told reporters in the recaptured Sheikh Saeed district of the city. "They don't have much time. They either have to surrender or die."

Rebel fighters "withdrew from at least six more east Aleppo neighbourhoods on Monday in the face of government advances", reports Al Jazeera.

Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed at least 60 people had been killed by gunfire or shelling in the past 24 hours. "The battle of Aleppo has reached its end. It is just a matter of a small period of time, no more, no less... it's a total collapse," he said.

The Syria Civil Defense aid group, also called the White Helmets, described the situation in eastern Aleppo as "hell" and pleaded for help from the international community to evacuate 100,000 civilians trapped in the area. 

Reports of summary executions have emerged from several unverified sources as troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad sweep through newly captured parts of the city. Mohammad Basbous, of the activist group Aleppo Media Centre, told CNN relatives of Free Syrian Army rebels, including women and children, were among those killed.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon reminded all sides in the conflict of their obligation "to protect civilians and abide by international humanitarian and human rights law".

He added: "This is particularly the responsibility of the Syrian government and its allies."

As Aleppo falls to Assad, what next for Syria?

29 November

Syrian troops have retaken up to a third of eastern Aleppo from rebels in a new offensive. Claims that Aleppo has fallen to Bashar al-Assad's regime are premature but his troops do seem to be making rapid progress through the city.

What would the fall of Syria's second largest city mean for the country's five-year civil war – and for the thousands of civilians who remain in the ravaged, formerly rebel-held areas?

What is happening in eastern Aleppo?

Backed by Russian air strikes, Assad launched an offensive in September to regain control of the eastern half of Aleppo. He stepped up the ground attack a fortnight ago. In response, civilians are fleeing for their lives. According to the UN, some 16,000 people have left eastern Aleppo in the "past few days".

There are around 275,000 people in the eastern half of the city, says the BBC. While the UN expects thousands more to run for their lives in the coming days, there will still be many thousands unable to escape, or who do not think the gamble is worthwhile.

What conditions are they facing?

Assad reinstated siege conditions on rebel-held areas of Aleppo in September. Rebel advances lifted the blockade in late July but little aid got through in the meantime.

On 19 September, a UN and Syrian Red Crescent aid convoy was bombed from the air, killing at least 20 people. The US said Russia struck the convoy, with John Kerry calling it a "war crime".

The White Helmets volunteer group, which works in rebel-held areas to save civilians from bombings, warned on Friday that residents were less than ten days from starvation. 

Winter conditions are now descending on Syria, with doctors rapidly running out of essential medical supplies, reports Al Jazeera

What might happen next in Aleppo?

Khaled Khatib, a spokesman for the White Helmets, told the Daily Beast yesterday that the offensive amounted to "a genocide against civilians". 

So ferocious is the bombardment of the city that 35 people remained trapped under rubble on Monday, with the White Helmets – their equipment and vehicles destroyed – unable to reach them. 

"If nobody moves to stop the regime and Russian bombardment of civilians, we fear the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of the modern era will take place," said Khatib.

US military and intelligence officials have also warned that "the fall of Aleppo poses a dire counter-terrorism challenge as it will surely lead to the further radicalisation of the rebellion", says the Daily Beast.

If Aleppo falls to Assad, will that end the civil war?

No, says the Syrian opposition's chief negotiator, George Sabra. He told the BBC today that rebels will fight on elsewhere in the country even if the government forces succeed in Aleppo and that the offensive will only make it harder to agree a peace deal. "Aleppo is an important place for the revolution but it's not the last place. Right now, we have so many places under the power of Free Syrian Army," he said.

Warning that the offensive was "killing a part of the political process", he added: "Nobody can think about peaceful solutions in these circumstances."

Syria: Aleppo on the brink after Assad breakthrough

28 November

Most of the rebel-held northern neighbourhoods of besieged eastern Aleppo have fallen to government forces in what could be a devastating blow in Syria's five-year civil war.

The Syrian army captured the Sakhour, Haydariya and Sheikh Khodr quarters on Monday, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The neighbourhoods had been the core of the rebels' hold on Aleppo since the fighting started, says The Times.

Over the weekend army troops took control of three other neighbouring districts in eastern Aleppo, driving a wedge through the rebel-held enclave.

"Yesterday was the worst day we've witnessed since the war started. More than 1,500 families have fled to the regime-controlled west of the city. The bombing is horrific," an Aleppo civil defence spokesman told Al Jazeera.

Zouhir al-Shimale, a journalist based in east Aleppo, said there was "constant collapse" as rebel-held neighbourhoods continued to fall to government forces. The UN estimates that at least 250,000 people remain under siege in the city.

Aleppo is the front line in the battle between forces supporting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government rebels. Assad's recent military progress has been bolstered by Russian air strikes.

"It appears that Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, is planning to take Aleppo before the inauguration of the US president-elect, Donald Trump, in January, taking advantage of the political vacuum in the US and Barack Obama's refusal to become directly involved," writes Patrick Wintour in The Guardian.

Moscow's diplomatic hand will also be strengthened by the election on Sunday of Francois Fillon as France's leading right-wing French presidential candidate. "He is regarded as being willing to work with Putin to reduce economic sanctions against Moscow," says Wintour.

Russia steps up Syria air strikes after Putin-Trump call

16 November

Russian jets began a series of strikes on Syria hours after President Vladimir Putin discussed the conflict with president-elect Donald Trump, it has been reported.

The Russian defence minister said the air strikes in Idlib and Homs provinces are "targeting Isis and Syrian jihadis, their ammunition depots and training camps".

Opposition activists have also reported 30 air strikes on rebel-held eastern Aleppo, according to the Financial Times.

"They have not spared anything," rebel commander Abu Bakr told the newspaper. "They are bombing anything that moves." The Kremlin has denied a renewed attack on Aleppo, which was the target of a Russian bombing campaign last month.

Analysts had predicted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Putin "would use the political transition in the US to mount an all-out offensive to defeat the rebels", says the FT.

Max Abrahms of Northeastern University told Russia Today that "already we're seeing a movement away from Obama's older policy of regime change".

President Assad said yesterday that Trump could become a "natural ally" of his regime if he fulfils his campaign promise to destroy Islamic State.

The news that Trump and Putin had discussed Syria hours before the latest offensive prompted fears that the president-elect intends to court the Kremlin as a potential ally.

Trump "believes that the US and Russia can work strategically together to advance an international agenda", CNN reports, which it says sits uncomfortably with large swathes of the Republican leadership.

As news of the new campaign emerged, veteran Republican senator John McCain - one of Trump's most outspoken critics within the Republican Party - issued a statement that has been widely interpreted as a warning to the president-elect.

McCain said that there was no way to "reset" US-Russian relations without accepting "complicity in Putin and Assad's butchery of the Syrian people". "This is an unacceptable price for a great nation," McCain said, adding that America's place was "on the side of those fighting tyranny".

Although McCain did not mention Trump by name, the statement "left no question about his opinion on a president acting too chummy with the Russian leader", says CNN.


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