Another ultimatum by Syrian and Russian forces for civilians to vacate rebel controlled eastern Aleppo and for armed groups to exit through separate corridors, has come and gone. It is the 2nd such unilateral ceasefire/humanitarian pause in 3 weeks. Many are saying that eastern Aleppo is “finished”.
There are three questions that are being asked, fair questions, by some, particularly those outside of the Syrian territories. I tried to cover them in three topics and answer them as I have seen the events on the ground.
Are rebel groups holding the civilian population hostage?
That question will have to be asked by looking at some of the recent history that has taken place here in eastern Aleppo. Firstly, regime/Russian airstrikes have been raining down on residents and the city’s infrastructure for several years now. Parents are too afraid to send their children to school. Therefore, nearly all Aleppo schools are closed. One needs only look to the massacre that took place two weeks ago in Haas, Idlib that saw nearly thirty children killed in a regime airstrike.
Meanwhile back in Aleppo, two hospitals were put out of service in the past few weeks alone. One hospital was hit 7 times within a one hour span with a bunker buster bomb, chlorine bomb, fragmentation bomb, and a barrel bomb. This was no accident. There are numerous attacks that have shown bloody and broken children suspended from the rubble which was once their home in regime aerial attacks.
It would be unnatural for people who saw the 11,000 death pictures of starved and tortured detainees released in January 2014 to feel a sense of comfort in turning themselves over to the same regime authorities who perpetrated these crimes.
Incidentally, it should be noted that Syrians were not as outraged as the rest of the world by these images. This information was new to the western world but not to Syrians. Syrians knew that Assad’s government had been carrying out these atrocities dating back to the days of his father Hafiz Assad, this is why there was no real shock in this part of the world. They already knew from first hand accounts from their fathers and brothers what was happening inside of Assad’s prisons.
Last week Damascus hosted a group of western journalists to meet embattled President Bashar Assad and tour certain areas of Aleppo. In a New York times article speaking about the crossing point from rebel controlled territory to the regime controlled side it stated: “At one crossing point, Syrian soldiers, and a few Russians, waited at a checkpoint decorated with posters of Mr. Assad. Judges stood by to determine whether evacuees were wanted by security forces.” Regime sources have been saying all along that “no one will be detained”. It takes literally nothing for someone to be placed on a wanted list by security forces. No proof is necessary. A simple family who decided to move to the rebel side to be with family members is enough to land their entire family on the security forces wanted list. Draft dodgers who ran away from obligatory military service during the years since the uprising began will also be on the list as well.
With all of this as a backdrop, does anyone feel that civilians didn’t feel good about going over to the regime side because of bullying by rebel groups?
Are rebel groups shelling civilians in Western Aleppo?
Shells have indeed been falling on civilian homes in western Aleppo throughout the conflict, and even more so as the rebels fight to break the siege around their half of the city. Are the two equal? Are they both just two heads of the same coin? Before rendering judgement there is something you should consider. What sort of weaponry is used by the two sides?
Rebel forces employ very crude weapons such as mortar rounds, elephant rockets, and on occasion Grad rockets.
These represent the primary long range weaponry that rebels use to attack regime positions. These weapons are fired at regime forces using approximate calculations as to where government soldiers are. These calculations are not always correct and it sometimes leads to the deaths of innocent people on the regime side. Additionally, Jaysh Al Fath issued a statement asking residents who live near the front lines to relocate so they are not caught in the crossfire. Regime forces did the same thing in warning those in eastern Aleppo as well. However, those in eastern Aleppo are completely surrounded on all sides and have no place to retreat to.
Meanwhile regime forces have an assortment of long range attack weaponry at their disposal. Most regime attacks on eastern Aleppo are launched by their air force or by their Russian helpers. The regime has the advantage of seeing it’s target when it drops a barrel bomb from it’s helicopter. It’s fleet of aircraft carry air to surface missiles which are computer calculated onboard the aircraft. The Russian fleet has, arguably, the most advanced air force in the world complete with satellite guided munitions and other targeting systems.
Russian President Vladimir Putin himself stated that their munitions are so accurate that they can put a missile within a five meter radius of their target.
Are the two equal?
Do Aleppo residents support rebels?
In general they do. Some do so because they have some connection to rebel fighters or to a certain group. Most of the force fighting from inside Aleppo are born and bred from the very streets they are defending. Others support the rebels because loved ones have been killed by regime forces. Aleppo residents feel that a massacre is waiting for them should the rebels fail to protect the city, and they know that there will be no assistance coming from any powerful outside actor. Therefore the default party that will receive their support are the rebel factions within the city standing between them and the regime.
Aleppo residents are now waiting to see what is going to happen next. Most feel that the bombing will resume but this time it will be more intense than before. Rebel factions inside of Aleppo are fighting to make sure that regime forces do not break into the city. Rebel factions outside of the siege are continuing to implement their plans to break the siege and free the trapped 300,000 people. After that, what happens next is anyone’s guess.