Aleppo On the Brink: "It's Hell"

by PATRICK GOODENOUGH December 13, 2016

Syria's once-largest city was on the verge of falling to regime forces on Tuesday; or, in the words of state media, it was on the verge of being "liberated from terrorists."  

The development would be the greatest triumph yet for President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies in the drawn-out conflict.

Earlier the government announced its forces were in control of 98 percent of the eastern part of Aleppo, Syria's commercial center that has been divided into regime- and rebel-held areas since 2012.

A stalemate ensued for four years, until the middle of 2016, when regime forces backed by Russian airstrikes besieged the eastern sector and some 250,000 inhabitants, ahead of an offensive that began last month.

Images posted in recent days on social media by residents show the extent of the devastation wreaked on a city which boasted a population of more than two million before the civil war erupted in 2011.

Overnight a series of tweets by the White Helmets, a humanitarian rescue group working in rebel-held areas, provided a glimpse of the scenes on the ground as regime and Hezbollah forces advanced:

"+100,000 civilians are packed into a tiny area. Bombing + shelling relentless. Casualties unimaginable. Bodies lie where they fell."

"We hear children crying, we hear calls for help, but we just can't do anything. We're being bombed continuously."

"There is no total number of casualties in Besieged Aleppo today, all streets & destroyed buildings are full with dead bodies. It's hell."

U.N. leaders have been able to do little more than issue statements deploring the situation.

"The secretary-general [Ban Ki-moon] is alarmed over reports of atrocities against a large number of civilians, including women and children, in recent hours in Aleppo," a spokesman for Ban said in a statement.

"While stressing that the United Nations is not able to independently verify these reports, the secretary-general is conveying his grave concern to the relevant parties," he added.

The U.N. Syria humanitarian coordinator, Jan Egeland, tweeted that Syria and Russia were "accountable for any and all atrocities that the victorious militias in Aleppo are now committing."

A very different picture was painted by the regime and its allies.

"Units of the army, in cooperation with backing forces, restored security and stability to Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood and chased remnants of terrorists," the Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

"Earlier, the army units achieved a new advance in hunting down the Takfiri terrorist organizations in the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo City, restoring security and stability to al-Sheikh Saeed neighborhood."

Russia's Defense Ministry announced that more than 13,000 civilians had been "rescued" from parts of eastern Aleppo in a 24-hour period, and that more than 700 "militants" had surrendered.

Russian state media said residents of Aleppo were celebrating. The pro-Kremlin RT network aired footage showing a group of people waving Syrian and Hezbollah flags and making V for victory signs with their hands.

In recent days, the latest attempts by U.S., Russian and U.N. officials meeting in Geneva failed to agree on a ceasefire, with each side pointing fingers at each other.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday the Russians refused to go along with a U.S. proposal for an immediate cessation of hostilities that would have allowed the safe and voluntary departure of civilians and opposition fighters from eastern Aleppo, and the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Instead, he said, Russia insisted the ceasefire could not begin for a few days - "which means, basically, the siege goes on and Aleppo could fall in the meantime."

But Moscow said the U.S. proposal was "unacceptable" in that it would allow rebel fighters to have a "respite."

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said the U.S. had insisted on "unacceptable parameters in terms of a ceasefire which would, in fact, provide full freedom of movement to those who the Syrian forces are currently fighting."

Ahead of the talks in Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed frustration at the notion of yet another meeting when so many previous ones had not moved the crisis towards a resolution.

"I know people are tired of these meetings," he told staff at the U.S. Embassy in Paris on Friday. "I'm tired of these meetings. And people are sort of, ‘Oh, another meeting. Okay. This one will end the same way the other one did.'"

"I get it, folks. I'm not born yesterday," he said. "But what am I supposed to do? Go home and have a nice weekend in Massachusetts while people are dying? Sit there in Washington and do nothing? That's not the way you do business. That's not what the United States does, it's not what people of decency do ..."

Diplomacy, he said, is "about trying."

Courtesy of     

Patrick covered government and politics in South Africa and the Middle East before joining in 1999. Since then he has launched foreign bureaus for in Jerusalem, London and the Pacific Rim. From October 2006 to July 2007, Patrick served as Managing Editor at the organization's world headquarters in Alexandria, Va. Now back in the Pacific Rim, as International Editor he reports on politics, international relations, security, terrorism, ethics and religion, and oversees reporting by's roster of international stringers.

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