Battle Over Aleppo Is Over, Russia Says, as Evacuation Deal Reached

A member of Syria’s government forces in Aleppo. Credit George Ourfalian/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Russia declared on Tuesday that the four-year battle over Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, was over, as the last remaining rebel fighters agreed to turn over their territory to the Syrian government. While pro-government forces were moving in, United Nations officials said they were receiving multiple reports of execution-style killings.
The deal was announced just as civilians inside the rebel enclave said they had lost hope. They had spent days huddled in abandoned apartments under heavy shelling, as those with a record of opposing the government said they were bracing for arrest, conscription or death.
Under the deal, evacuations were set to begin at 5 a.m. Wednesday. Earlier on Tuesday, fears had mounted as the United Nations said it had reports that Syrian troops or allied Iraqi militiamen were gunning down families in apartments and on the streets, with the toll reaching 82 civilians.
Several residents said they had lost contact with relatives in those same areas, and a monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the number of men forced to join the army upon fleeing to government areas had reached 6,000. And with no way to treat the wounded, bodies were piling up on the streets of the shrinking rebel territory.
But then came the deal, and the shelling quieted down. Russia, Turkey and Syrian rebel groups announced that they had agreed to evacuate all of the remaining fighters to rebel-held territory, with civilians free to join them or move to government-held areas, leaving the whole city of Aleppo in government hands.
If the deal is carried out, and all rebel fighters leave as agreed, it would mark a major turning point in Syria’s nearly six-year war. It would put all of the major cities along the country’s more populous western spine back under government control, though Kurdish militias and the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State continue to hold large areas to the east.
A full evacuation from Aleppo would be the largest success of the government’s starve-or-surrender strategy, bombing and besieging areas out of its control until fighters and residents agree to surrender. It would leave the armed opposition to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in control of just one provincial capital, Idlib — where rebel fighters from Aleppo will be bused — as well as stretches of rural territory in northern and southern Syria and several other isolated patches.
But the victory leaves Mr. Assad more dependent than ever on Iran and Russia, and so despised by his opponents, including many of Syria’s majority Sunnis, that they might never again accept him as a legitimate ruler. The territory he has reconquered has been won at a devastating cost, and much of the country remains in the hands of his enemies.

Residents who had fled the violence in the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood reached Aleppo’s Fardos area on Tuesday. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The battle over Aleppo has been a particularly painful chapter of the war, dividing and largely destroying one of the world’s oldest and most beautiful cities, a World Heritage site, amid mounting human suffering. The eastern, rebel-held half of Aleppo had become unlivable, with rebels unable to stop the government’s indiscriminate bombing, which destroyed entire neighborhoods, let alone deliver a better life. The government-held districts were far less damaged, and daily life there was more normal, but residents there suffered too, from indiscriminate rebel shelling.
Tens of thousands of residents — Russia says at least 100,000, the United Nations puts the number at 37,000 — left the rebel-held districts as pro-government forces moved in. Thousands more fled to rebel- or Kurdish-held areas. The government said rebels were keeping most people inside by force; some residents said in interviews that fighters had stopped them from leaving, others said they guided them out.
When the agreement was announced Tuesday, the remaining residents — who just hours before had been sending what they thought were their last farewells — suddenly had to reckon with their mixed feelings about a bittersweet and uncertain escape.
“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Bassem Ayoub, a longtime antigovernment activist, posted on Facebook. “My soul is leaving my body. Aleppo, my life, my life.”
Hours earlier, he and his family made an excruciating decision. His wife and children, he said, went in search of a route to government-held territory, hoping to fade into crowds of the displaced and not be discovered as the relatives of a man the government considers a terrorist. He stayed behind, unsure when he would see them again, but certain that if he tried to flee, he would be arrested.
“Some are crying from happiness, others are sad they will no longer be able to kneel to pray in Aleppo,” said Malek, an activist who hopes to join his pregnant wife in northern Aleppo Province. “I’m sad, as well — I paid blood for Aleppo, but I can never again set foot here. Tyranny has won.”
Others expressed their bitterness about a revolt that started with protests for political reform but curdled as the government bombarded rebel-held neighborhoods and Islamist extremists rose to power within the insurgency. “The Islamists and love of power screwed up the revolution,” Zaher al-Zaher, another activist, wrote in a text message. “I lost my house, and my family are away from me. My heart is burning.”
As preparations began for the departures from eastern Aleppo, government supporters celebrated in the streets.
Rebels, activists and aid workers in eastern Aleppo said they had been told that civilians and fighters could all leave and travel to rebel-held areas. That satisfied a key demand that both groups have an option to avoid going to government-controlled areas, where dissidents and medical and humanitarian workers working in rebel-held areas have been punished as terrorists.

Government fighters celebrated as they seized eastern Aleppo. The United Nations has accused pro-government forces of killing women and children as they took the city. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But there were still doubts and fears about whether the way out would be smooth or safe. In previous agreements, like one in Homs in 2014, pro-government militias, angry that fighters they saw as terrorists were allowed to leave alive, have fired on evacuees.
Signs of friction emerged early Wednesday in Aleppo. About 1 a.m., four hours before the 5 a.m. departures set out under the agreement, a convoy of vans carrying 70 wounded people, mostly fighters and their families, were filmed pulling out of the enclave. But a short time afterward, residents reported the convoy had been turned back by pro-government Shiite militiamen and told it could depart after 6 a.m.
There were concerns that cracks were already emerging in the deal, perhaps over tensions between Mr. Assad’s two main allies, Russia and Iran, which trains and backs pro-government Shiite militias from Iraq and elsewhere.
The deal was struck after widespread concern about the fate of civilians, with the United Nations warning of “a complete meltdown of humanity” and protests breaking out at United Nations headquarters in New York and Russian embassies in several cities, including London, Stockholm and Istanbul.
Hundreds of civilians have died in the offensive; the full toll is not known because the humanitarian groups that rescued and treated civilians and tracked casualties largely collapsed under fire in recent days.
The United Nations said the 82 summary killings were reported in four neighborhoods — Bustan al-Qasr, al-Fardous, al-Kallaseh and al-Saleheen — and included at least 11 women and 13 children, some shot in the streets as they tried to escape, said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Mr. Colville cited reports that the world body had received from reliable contacts inside and outside the city.
Later on Tuesday, the United Nations Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, revealed new details of what officials knew of the reported killings: The dead had been shot with handguns, but it was not clear who had killed them.
Russia categorically denied what the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said were “credible reports” of atrocities, including executions. Mr. Ban said the United Nations had been unable to verify the reports because the Syrian government had repeatedly denied permission to United Nations staff to monitor the evacuations and aid civilians stuck on the battlefield.
Asked if there was concern that Idlib Province, where surrendering rebels and civilians from other cities have been taken, could be “the next Aleppo,” Mr. de Mistura acknowledged that grim possibility, adding, “We are working on that.”
Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, Somini Sengupta from the United Nations, Karam Shoumali from Istanbul, Oleg Matsnev from Moscow and Falih Hassan from Baghdad.
Now, it seemed, they would survive, and avoid arrest in a country where dissent can be punished by torture. Yet now they would have to leave their city, perhaps forever.

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