Despite more than 80 consecutive days of sustained bombardment of rebel-held Aleppo, civilians are barely using humanitarian corridors to flee the war-shattered Syrian city.
A few dozen families have trickled out of Aleppo using the corridors established over the weekend by the Syrian regime, which has been trying to tighten the noose around eastern parts of the city held by opposing rebels since 2012. The Russian military has reported that fewer than 200 civilians and 69 militants have fled down the corridors.
The tiny number that has taken the opportunity to escape is testimony to the determination of defenders and civilians remaining in rebel-held eastern districts to resist the onslaught, say activists. Up to a quarter of a million people remain in the Syria’s onetime commercial capital.
But some residents in conversations over Skype with VOA say some families who would like to flee, are afraid of using the four humanitarian corridors that lead into regime-controlled territory because they fear being detained - as happened in Homs in 2014 when there were mass disappearances among those who took up a government offer to leave the then-besieged city.
Assad regime and Russian media outlets have claimed rebels are preventing civilians from leaving - a claim residents contacted by VOA dispute.
U.S. officials say the government offer for civilians to flee is an attempt to depopulate rebel-controlled areas, making it easier for the regime to seize them and to further demonstrate the dramatic shift of fortunes in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favor since Moscow launched its military intervention on his behalf last year.
At least 6,000 people have been either killed or injured in the past 80 days in Aleppo, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a monitoring group.
Among those killed was a child actor who became famous as the star of a black comedy about life in the war-ravaged city of Aleppo. Almost 30 episodes were made; the filming itself was an act of defiance amid the daily bombardments.
Fourteen-year-old Qusai Abtini was killed last month after his father decided they should leave the city. The child star of the first sit-com produced in rebel-held territory was famous for his toothy grin. The car he was traveling in was struck by four rockets as the family tried to leave before government forces seized the last remaining major route out of the city.
At a symbolic funeral for the child actor - a video was posted online - his father is seen sitting in a wheelchair holding a placard reading, “Qusai, Abu Abdu the Aleppan. You are a little hero. You scared the regime with your giant acts so they killed you.”
The deaths are not only coming on the rebel side, although the vast number is among insurgents and their civilian supporters. Monitors said Tuesday that at least 30 people, including children and women, were killed in government-controlled areas from recent shelling by rebel forces.
The shells, targeting surrounding areas controlled by the Syrian regime near rebel districts, were part of a major, surprise offensive to break the siege launched Sunday by a mixture of Free Syrian Army militias and an alliance of mainly Islamist rebels — this time in southern Aleppo.
The Islamist alliance led by Jabhat Fatah al Sham (known as Jabhat al-Nusra prior to the group’s July 28 claimed split from al Qaida) has managed to capture two south Aleppo villages and a military center used by pro-Assad Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.
For nearly a month, rebels have tried unsuccessfully to break the siege by seizing back control of the Castello Road, a major road into opposition-held east Aleppo that links to routes into rebel-held territory to the north and west of the city. Last week the rebels came close.
The insurgents’ offensive south clearly took regime forces off guard, pushing them back several kilometers and according to the pro-regime media outlet Al Masdar, forcing the Russian air force to “come to the aid of the government forces in southern Aleppo.”
Analysts believe the battle for Aleppo will have major repercussions, impacting the dynamics of the long-running war. “The siege of Aleppo looks set to be a major pivot point in the Syrian crisis,” says Charles Lister, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
He adds: “While Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015 transformed the balance of power on the ground, it was a later Iranian push from early-2016 that facilitated the siege of Aleppo itself. As Iranian-backed pro-regime forces steadily closed in on key strangle points like the Castello Road, Russia saw itself gradually sucked into a battle in which its airpower is now a crucially important factor. Now that the siege is in place, no party to the pro-regime alliance can afford to let it slip.
“Whatever the ultimate outcome, further military escalation and civilian suffering in Aleppo promises only to make political efforts to solve Syria’s crisis even harder,” he says.
Rebels say they have made fast and quick progress with their southern offensive. Their aim is to capture a major regime artillery base, another 2.5 kilometers from their new frontline in the southwest of the city.