Aleppo: Assad regime warns the remaining rebels

Aleppo: Assad regime warns the remaining rebels

Assad regime forces warned the last rebel enclave of Aleppo saying it would enter the area on Tuesday, urging them to speed up their evacuation of the city as about 25000 civilians have already been transported to Idlib.

After months of crippling siege, starvation policy, daily bombardment, fierce clashes and bloody massacres the Assad regime and its allies were able to oblige the rebels in Aleppo to surrender and make an agreement to leave the area they have been holding since 2012 after losing more than 90% of it.

The ceasefire agreement was a result of talks between Russia and Turkey.

As part of an agreement between Turkey and Russia, tens of thousands of rebels and civilians were supposed to be evacuated from eastern Aleppo to rebel-held Idlib, allowing the Assad regime to take full control of the city after years of fighting.

By taking full control of Aleppo, Assad has proved the power of his military coalition, aided by Russia’s air force and an array of Shi’ite militias backed by Iran after his rule was close to ending after major losses in 2015.

Since last Tuesday, the ceasefire agreement was breached many times and the evacuation of civilians blocked by Iran-backed militias, until it was finally allowed again on Sunday in return to the evacuation of Shiite civilians from areas besieged by the rebels.

The operation was continued on Monday on a wider scale, as thousands of civilians have been evacuated from besieged east Aleppo and thousands more are preparing to leave.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 5,000 civilians left the besieged districts in 75 buses on Monday, in a total of 20.000 civilians since the start of the truce.

Warns for the rebels

Assad regime forces used loudspeakers to broadcast warnings into the last rebel enclave of Aleppo saying it would enter the area on Tuesday, a military media unit run by the government’s ally Hezbollah reported, urging the rebels to speed up their evacuation of the city.

The rebels would only leave once all the civilians who wanted to had done so, the rebel said. The ceasefire and evacuation agreement allow them to carry personal weapons but not heavier arms.

Estimates of the number of people still waiting for evacuation on convoys of buses range from a few thousand to tens of thousands. The route out of Aleppo runs 5 km (3 miles) to the rebel-held district of al-Rashideen, just beyond the city’s southwestern limit.

The International Committee of the Red Cross put the number evacuated since the operation began on Thursday at only 25,000.

A rebel official in Turkey said that even after thousands left on Monday, only about half of the civilians who wanted to leave had done so.

The rebels have been holding large areas in Aleppo since 2012 and were able to turn Aleppo into a stronghold for their forces.

However, Assad regime forces, backed by Russian air power, Iranian ground forces and Shi’ite militia fighters from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, has been tightening its grip on rebel-held districts of Aleppo since the start of this year.

Many ceasefire agreements accompanied by peace talks meetings were organized to help find a solution to the crisis, but Assad regime and Iranian forces breached every ceasefire and hindered every peace talks meeting without any pressure moves or real steps from the western powers.

Assad regime forces gradually closed in on eastern Aleppo this year, first cutting the most direct lifeline to Turkey before fully encircling the east, and launching a major assault in September that killed hundreds of civilians but was blocked by the rebels.

On November 15, the regime started a wide military operation to force control again over the rebel-held areas and were able to retrieve 85% of the region.

However, all these victories wouldn’t have been achieved without the help of Iran and its armed militias, who started to demand of more power to complete its goals in turning Syria into a Shiite.

Iran’s strategy in Syria

Iran and the Syrian government do not want to compromise on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, believing that total domination will give them a better hand to shape the aftermath. Russia, on the other hand, sees a benefit in transitioning from bludgeoning superpower to peace-broker.

Shia militias have also played a decisive role. Raised by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the militias have been far more effective than Syrian units. Their numbers had built around east Aleppo since early last year to an estimated force of 6,000-8,000 troops, many of them battle-hardened in Iraq or southern Lebanon.

The militias report to the Iranian Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani, who was tasked more than a decade ago by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to export the values of the Islamic Revolution into the Arab world. Suleimani’s Quds Force is one of the Guards’ most elite units, attracting ideological cadres who believe in Shia supremacy.

Under Suleimani’s control are several Iraqi units, Asa’ib ahl al-Haq, Abu al-Fadhil al-Abbas, and the Nujaba Front, which is affiliated with the Keta’ib Hezbollah militia. All are power players in Iraq’s political-military sphere. Lebanese Hezbollah plays the same role in Beirut and southern Lebanon, where it is interwoven into the political and security apparatus.

Hezbollah was the first of the Iranian proxies to join the fight alongside Assad, and has paid a heavy price for doing so. Party loyalists in Beirut say at least 1,600 of its fighters had been killed in Syria before the conquest of east Aleppo.

Shia graveyards in Najaf have similarly been filling up, with several thousand Iraqi fighters known to have been killed in Syria and buried in large dedicated plots bought by the militias over the past three years.

Most casualties from the Iranian side have been Afghan refugees, recruited on the promise that their families would gain the right to reside in Iran. But an Iranian official said recently that as many as 1,000 Iranians had died in Syria since the conflict began.

The blood and treasure expended by Iran has focused on Aleppo and the western suburbs of Damascus, the site of the Zainab shrine – a pilgrimage point for Shia Muslims. Controlling these two areas would ensure Iran’s grip on the biggest areas in Syria and will be a huge step in changing Syria’s demographics to serve is own agendas.

Iran has framed its war effort in sectarian terms, insisting the men it has sent to fight are in Syria to defend the shrine from “Sunni extremists”. In addresses inside Syria, Akram al-Ka’abi, the leader of the Nujaba Front, has exhorted his followers to seek revenge for battlefield losses to Sunni figures in the founding years of Islam.

The fate of rebel-held Aleppo spells the abject failure of the west’s contradictory and piecemeal policies. It is a humiliation for the UN. Its fall will be an unequivocal victory for Russian strategy, and the shameful and humiliating defeat for all those who said they stand with the civilians and left them to face annihilation including US, Turkey and all Arab states.