Aleppo cease-fire founders, threatening evacuation plans

By , on December 14, 2016

Syrian rebels (Flickr Photo)
Syrian rebels (Flickr Photo)

BEIRUT—A cease-fire deal between rebels and the Syrian government in the city of Allepo foundered on Wednesday, threatening plans to evacuate the remaining rebels and tens of thousands of civilians out of harm’s way in what would effectively seal the enclave’s surrender.

The withdrawal was supposed to start at dawn but shelling resumed in the morning hours and buses meant for the evacuations, which were waiting at the rendezvous point on the edge of the rebel enclave, returned to their depots.

Activists and rebels trapped in the opposition’s last sliver of territory in Aleppo said pro-government forces had struck their district with dozens of rockets since mid-morning.

“The bombardment is scarcely to be believed on the eastern neighborhoods and until now 40 people have been wounded,” said Ibrahim al-Haj, a spokesman for the Syrian Civil Defense first responders. “They are using all forms of weapons.”

The Syrian government ordered its green-colored buses back, signaling that the deal mediated between Ankara and Moscow on Tuesday night to bring the fighting to an end in Aleppo was off.

The Lebanese al-Manar TV, broadcast footage of the buses leaving the evacuation point empty and said government forces had resumed fighting with rebels in the city. Al-Manar is the media arm of the Lebanese militant Shiite group Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government forces.

Activists in eastern Aleppo blamed government forces, saying they shot first. Media activist Mahmoud Raslan said he was reporting for a Turkish agency when a rocket crashed beside him at around 10:15 a.m. He shared an audio recording of the explosion with the Associated Press.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that the rebels “resumed the hostilities” at dawn, trying to break through Syrian government positions to the north-west.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused the Syrian government and its allies of trying to scuttle the deal.

“We see now that the regime and other groups are trying to obstruct this (deal),” he said in remarks quoted by the state-run Anadolu Agency. “This includes Russia, Iran, forces supported by Iran and the regime.”

The surrender of Aleppo’s remaining opposition-run neighborhoods to government control would be a defining moment in Syria’s civil war.

The last-minute deal was mediated by Ankara and Moscow as the rebel enclave rapidly dissolved and ceded more and more territory in the face of the brutal advance by Syrian forces, backed by Russia and assisted by Shiite militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Late on Tuesday, the U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called for immediate access to the former rebel enclave to confirm the end of military operations and to oversee the safe departure of tens of thousands of civilians and opposition fighters. De Mistura was at the Security Council where an emergency meeting for Aleppo was held.