By Katerina Karakatsanis
Updated information from December 2016 is towards the end of this post.
Thursday morning the world woke up to a video of a confused 5-year-old Syrian boy, Omran Daqneesh, being pulled out of rubble in the aftermath of an airstrike in Aleppo, Syria. Automatically this scene brings back the image of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old who drowned on his way to Greece from Turkey almost a year ago. The image of Omran has shown the world the brutality of many Syrian children’s reality: if you stay in Syria you face potential death, but if you leave Syria your life also remains uncertain. So, what should children, who have never seen a day of peace in their lifetime supposed to do?
Omran Daqneesh is one of many currently living in Aleppo who has seen their city turned into a strategic fight and symbol in the Syrian war. Once a major commercial hub, Aleppo has become, for all sides in Syria and all external international actors, the scene of a major battle. For the rebels, Aleppo’s vicinity to Turkey allows them to keep supply routes open. It also provides them with an increased chance of pushing the government forces out. For Assad, control of Aleppo allows him to cut off rebels’ access to weapons and other supplies, while also winning a major strategic city in the war.
Who is fighting in Aleppo?
In the most simplistic terms, Aleppo has become the battleground between rebel forces in the east and Assad’s government regime in the west. Fighting has been occurring in Aleppo since 2012 and has recently intensified.
Using the terms ‘rebels’ or ‘opposition’ is often misleading, as these are separate groups – many of whom are disputing between themselves. The history of the rebel movement in Aleppo is complex in itself, with groups changing allegiances back and forth. In 2012, many rebels lost support for their focus on looting. But recently, against the government forces, many rebels have united at strategic points to fight against their common enemy.
It is beyond impossible to summarise each group involved in Syria but if you are interested in this, Wikipedia has a full page devoted to the different actors in the conflict.
(see below for external actors)
What is happening?
Before the war, Aleppo was Syria’s largest city with a population of 2.5 million. The current estimates range from 30,000 to 250,000 left in the rebel-controlled east, and 1.5 million in the government’s west.
Battles have been occurring between the two sides since 2012. Each side has lost areas, recaptured them and gained new ones. In February 2016, after a 3-year siege on Nubl and Zahraa, government forces regained two Shi’a villages which cut off the potential for a supply route to Turkey (Aleppo is about an hours drive to the Turkish border). ISIL has also managed to capture new villages (Kafr Saghir and Babinnis), but most have recaptured by government forces.
One of the big turning points was at the end of June when the Syrian Army managed to cut off the Castello road, which was the last remaining supply route for the rebels. This was significant, as it encircled rebel forces, forcing a siege on eastern Aleppo.
Russia on 25 June began heavy airstrikes on Aleppo, while simultaneously engaging in ground bombardment. The government even appealed to the citizens by air-dropping thousands of leaflets asking them to comply and call on the rebel forces to surrender, and later sent out text messages asking for the population to ask the rebel forces to give up their weapons.
The UN was last able to get food supplies into Aleppo on 7 July. One month later, on 8 August, Mercy Corps stated that “The UN estimates that collectively, all aid supplies in east Aleppo will only last about two more weeks.” This Monday, 22 August will mark the end of those two weeks and supplies have still not reached Aleppo.
Jabhat al-Nusra decided to abandon its affiliation to Al-Qaeda two days after the siege started, recalling itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham who announced the start of a new phase to “liberate” the whole of Aleppo. This new coalition has been met with cynicism by others in Western Europe, who believe it to be merely an attempt at ‘rebranding’ while still maintaining Salafi-Jihadi ideology. After a month-long siege, at the beginning of August, rebels united to capture a Syrian military academy. Many in the east of Aleppo believed this would break the siege. Rebels also then took Ramouseh, closing in on some of the Assad-controlled West Airstrikes have continued ever since. On 10 August it was reported that at least 6 top-level ranking rebels had been killed in less than 24 hours. Rebels have also attacked Kurd-controlled areas, accusing them of siding with government forces. The Commander of the rebel group of Fatah Halab Operations Chamber warned that Kurdish group, People’s Protection Unit (YPG) will ‘not find a place to bury their dead in Aleppo’.
The YPG has said that it is not involved in the fighting between the opposition forces and the government, instead arguing that rebels have targeted civilians. Throughout the Battle for Aleppo, the YPG had first come to an agreement with the Levant Front in 2014, and then joined the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF (a collection of mainly Kurdish, Assyrian and Arab groups). It has been argued that that the SDF is “essentially a subsidiary of the Kurdish YDG”. Meanwhile, Turkey has shelled the YPG during the fighting as well.
Fighting has continued with the rebels and the government both gaining, losing and recapturing areas around 1070 Housing Project and the Ramouseh district.
On 18 August, the world woke up to an image of a young boy called Omran Daqneesh confused and dazed after being rescued from rubble of what used to be his home. This video garnered high social media attention, leading many to question what exactly is going on in Aleppo. The White Helmets, a volunteer group who try to rescue Aleppo citizens out the urban destruction, has also recently been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
On 18 August, Russia publicly announced (even via Twitter) that it was willing to support a proposal allowing a 48-hour ceasefire to allow aid – like food – to come into the city.
But what about the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey?
Russia and the US agreed on a ceasefire in February 2016 which fell apart, leading to the increase in violence. In May 2016, the US and Russia continued to disagree over what should happen to Assad. Although Russia declared it was withdrawing from Syria a few months ago, it has still remained part of the bombing. Russia says that targets terrorists like ISIL. However, many say Russia and Assad conflate ‘terrorists’ with citizens and anyone in the anti-Assad camp.
Jabhat al-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s breakup with al-Qaeda also has consequences for US actions in Aleppo. Before this, the US was forced to choose an ally in either Al-Qaeda or Assad. Nusra has said that the US and its coalition have targeted them, but now that they are no longer with Al-Qaeda this will be the time we will see whether the US support Assad over opposition forces. This last point is very important. As stated earlier, many are wary that Jabhat al-Nusra has not really cut all ties with Al-Qaeda. But if the US sides with Russia and Assad, Nusra will be able to claim the victim role among the local population.
Russia has, as previously mentioned, proposed 3-hour ceasefires to allow humanitarian aid to come in. However, many within Aleppo accused the Russians of window-dressing and continuing to engage in fighting.
The UN Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has also been trying to negotiate with Iran, who rejected the US-Russia plan. On 18 August, de Mistura left a meeting of the Syrian Humanitarian Task force after 8 minutes because of his frustration with the inability for an agreement that would allow aid to enter Aleppo.
Iranian and Turkish relations have also been tense. Turkey (along with many Gulf states) backs rebel forces. Iran and Shi’a forces like Hezbollah support Assad’s forces. Assad is Alawi, which is seen as an offshoot of Shi’a Islam. Part of the main reason why Iran and Hezbollah (both Shi’a) support Assad is to prevent Sunni domination over Syria, something they fear would happen if rebels backed by Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey got their way. However, Turkey and Iran recently have met to discuss keeping Aleppo neutral and to put the focus on the Kurds as their mutual enemies.
Russia recently agreed with Iran to allow Russian air forces to land in Iran. This gives Russia access to greater air power that it can bring into the Syrian conflict.
What are the conditions like?
Jens Laerke reported on 10 August that airstrikes left over 2 million Aleppo citizens without access to electricity or water as the bombs hit crucial infrastructure. Clarissa Ward, a senior CNN correspondent, testified to the UN Security Council her experiences witnessing barrel bombing in Aleppo and describes the city as ‘what hell feels like’.
The UN has not been able to provide any aid into the city since 7 July 2016.
What about the people?
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) “hundreds of people have been killed and untold numbers have been injured. Tens of thousands are trapped and without aid.” According to one journalist, 375 people have died in the rebel-controlled areas in the last 12 days.
What about chemical weapons?
In July, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons stated that Syria failed to disclosure five additional chemical agents that it has. On 11 August 2016 the Syrian government was accused of using chlorine which Amnesty International says was ‘third reported use of chemical weapons in northern Syria in just two weeks”. Fatah Halab, a rebel group, has also been accused of targeting civilians and using chemical weapons by Amnesty International in May 2016. It should be noted that using chemical weapons is a war crime.
What is going on with the doctors?
There are now around 35 doctors left in eastern Aleppo. The UN has recently confirmed that medical personnel is being explicitly targeted in Aleppo, with many doctors losing their lives and hospitals being targeted. Too see more about attacks on medical facilities in Syria, check out Physicans for Human Rights interactive map of attacks and belligerents:
Dr. Zaher Sahloul recently described his experiences as a doctor inside Aleppo. He argues, that in the wake of many Western countries waking up to each newspaper depicting Omran,
“We say this is a powerful picture, but will it translate into meaningful action to protect these children? They are not dolls to cry over and then move on. That is the worst thing, everyone is looking at these pictures, but who will do anything?”
In December 2016, Assad’s Syrian Army began to take back key areas in Aleppo. This has meant areas that have been under rebel control, where around 50,000 civilians remain, are currently facing bombardment from the advancing army. The Syrian Army has been dropping bombs since Wednesday in opposition-controlled areas, with residents using social media to describe the ferocity of the attacks and tweeting out their final goodbyes to the world.
So far there have been unsuccessful attempts to evacuate civilians and to reach a sustainable cease-fire. According to the Kenneth Roth, Executive Director at Human Rights Watch, Russia’s agreement with Turkey fell through because Iran and Syria decided not to go along with it. However, reports from the ground have stated that neither of these agreements have been reached.
At the time of writing, different reports of agreed evacuations have been emerging. Although some Syrian rebels have said that there has been an agreement on the evacuation of civilians, other groups such as Hezbollah and the Syrian Army, are stating that negotiations of the terms are still being completed.
The implications of this development are two-fold. Firstly, Aleppo is a major battlefield in the long-winded Syrian Civil War. Although it for a long period of time looked as if Assad had completely lost the city, his forces are now about to take full control of Aleppo, leaving the Syrian Army with all the country’s major urban areas. It is beginning to look as though Assad, particularly with the help of allies such as Russia, Iran and pro-Assad militias, will end up victorious, or at least in a good bargaining position for post-war political negotiations when the war finally ends.
Secondly, this has major implications for the remaining population. Civilians caught in strategically and politically important battle will be the true victims in the upcoming days. Human rights organisations, and apparently Western aircrafts, are already begin to document violations – including war crimes.
It is unclear yet whether any agreement will happen before more lives are lost. But it is clear that despite the millions across the world who have only come to know of the city of Aleppo through the past few years, the international community will have failed at finding a way to prevent these civilians’ lives in a geopolitical war that is beyond their control.
Featured photo: By Voice of America News: Scott Bobb reports from Aleppo, Syria [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWounded_civilians_arrive_at_hospital_Aleppo.jpg