The fall of rebel-controlled districts of eastern Aleppo to the forces of President Bashar al-Assad is likely to prove a decisive victory in the five-year civil war. The demise has major symbolic significance and leaves the regime and its foreign backers, Russia and Iran, free to focus their military might on remaining rebel strongholds in the rest of western Syria.
While rebel commanders and opposition politicians insist the loss of Aleppo won’t mark the end of the uprising, few doubt battlefield fortunes have swung heavily against them, and with the regime possibly hours away from seizing what is left of insurgent-controlled eastern Aleppo, the dynamic of resistance will have to change to guerrilla warfare to the keep the revolution alive.
The focus of the conflict will swing quickly to the neighboring Idlib province, says Gen. Salim Idris, a former commander-in-chief of the Free Syrian Army, who fears the loss of Aleppo will deal an irreversible blow to the status of what remains of moderate and more secular militias. After Aleppo “the Assad forces will then focus west on Idlib province and then that will be the end,” laments Gen. Idris.
Smoke and flames rise after air strikes on rebel-controlled besieged area of Aleppo, as seen from a government-held side, in Syria December 11, 2016.
Rebels lose territory
The Syrian military claimed Monday that 98 percent of eastern Aleppo is in the hands of regime forces. While there is some dispute about that — independent monitors calculate 10 percent of the eastern half of the city remains occupied by insurgents — it is clear rebels are now contained in a small pocket and likely won’t be able to hold out in the face of overwhelming firepower for more than a few hours, at best a handful of days, according to Western diplomats based in Turkey.
Zakaria Malahefji, the political officer of the 3,000- member Fastaqim Kama Umirt, a militia aligned with the Free Syrian Army, estimated 85 percent of eastern Aleppo is in government hands.
Two key neighborhoods fell Monday, Sheikh Saeed and Saliheen. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that receives on-the-ground information from a network of activists, says Assad forces are pushing into six remaining rebel neighborhoods, including Bustan al-Qasr and Souq al-Hal.
“The battle for Aleppo has begun to enter the final phase,” said the observatory’s director, Rami Abdel Rahman.
Syrian generals agree. “The battle in eastern Aleppo should end quickly. They [rebels] don't have much time. They either have to surrender or die," Gen. Zaid al-Saleh, told Syrian state media in the recaptured Sheikh Saeed.
Advances Monday came after a ferocious overnight bombardment, civilians and rebel commanders in Aleppo told VOA in frequently interrupted communications. They likened the situation inside the rebel pocket to “Doomsday,” saying there’s little help now for the wounded with many injured buried under rubble.
The White Helmets, a first responders group, which accused the Assad regime of dropping chlorine-filled bombs at the weekend, say there are dozens of civilian casualties and that rescuers can’t move under the ferocity of the shelling and airstrikes.
Journalists in government-held neighborhoods confirmed shelling of rebel areas was non-stop overnight.
Syrian state TV showed pictures of devastation with collapsed buildings and dead bodies on the streets. Dazed civilians, many of them women and children, carried bundles.
The mother of seven-year-old girl Bana Alabed, Fatemah, who along with her daughter has been tweeting since September 26 from a rebel-held district, posted Monday: “Final message - people are dying since last night. I am very surprised I am tweeting right now & still alive. - Fatemah.”
On Sunday, Fatemah tweeted: “The army is so near now. I don't know what to do. only way to flee is to regime side which I fear coz they will kill me.”
Few ways out
Many civilians are fleeing, some following rebel fighters into the districts they still occupy, but most heading to government-controlled west Aleppo. The Russian Defense Ministry said 13,346 civilians left rebel-controlled districts in the past 24 hours. It also claimed 728 rebels surrendered.
Syria's official SANA news agency said more than 3,500 people fled Sheikh Saeed at dawn as regime militiamen moved into the district. The Syrian Observatory said in the past month at least 415 civilians, including 47 children, had been killed in rebel-held territory, with hundreds injured. The group said 364 rebel fighters were killed.
Opposition activists and civilians say regime forces are arresting and rounding up males fleeing eastern Aleppo, including medics and aid workers, accusing them of supporting or being active in the rebel militias. Other young males are being press-ganged into army units and sent east to fight, according to opposition activists.
“The Russians are not willing to negotiate safe passage and are stubborn about the evacuation of civilians even,” said Zakaria Malahefji of the Fastaqim Kama Umirt militia.
There is increasing bitterness in rebel ranks at what they see as an abandonment of their cause by the West. Opposition politicians remain furious at recent comments by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who blamed them for the failure of cease-fire negotiations, accusing them of not wanting a cease-fire.