The fate of tens of thousands of civilians and rebel fighters is at stake as forces supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad stand poised to retake the last neighborhoods of the city of Aleppo.
Both the ordinary people and the gunmen trapped in the rebel-section of the city are all that stands between the Assad regime and what would be one of its most important victories in more than five and a half years of revolution and war. Aleppo was Syria’s largest city before the war emerged from the uprising that began in 2011. Since 2012 Aleppo has been a key battleground in the fight between the regime and armed opposition groups. The recapture of the city would signal a potentially decisive shift in the conflict, cementing the government’s hold on a strategic swath of the country and rousting the opposition from its signature stronghold.
People living in the shrinking rebel sector of the city face an impossible choice: stay and face death or capture, or attempt to flee. Those who run risk their lives traversing a war zone, and face an uncertain fate if they manage to reach a government-controlled section of the city. East Aleppo residents fear they could be detained, tortured or disappeared by the security forces over their support, real or perceived, for the rebels. Hundreds of men aged 30 to 50 have already gone missing after entering government-held areas, according to reports gathered by the United Nations.
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Negotiations are underway toward a possible agreement that would allow civilians to leave the besieged rebel pocket of the city. But until a deal is reached, civilians in what remains of rebel-held eastern Aleppo feel they have no choice but to stay where they are, as the fighting rages around them. For some residents, this is a matter of safety. For others, it is a question of principle.
“When we run away towards the side that besieged us, killed our beloved ones, and destroyed our homes, shouldn’t we be called surrenderers?” says Wissam Zarqa, a teacher living in the besieged area, in a text message.
Another resident named Yasser, an employee of the Aleppo City Medical Council says, “If the regime kept me alive, you can call me the arrested.” He asked to be identified only by his first name.
Armed rebel groups fighting Assad have also blocked civilians’ path to safety, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. In a statement on Friday, the office said two armed groups, Fateh al-Sham (formerly the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front) and the Abu Amara Battalion, “are alleged to have abducted and killed an unknown number of civilians” who requested permission to leave the besieged area.
Forces supporting the government began advancing rapidly in Aleppo on Nov. 28, seizing parts of the city held by rebels since 2012. The collapse of the opposition enclave is the culmination of a more than year-long Russian-backed offensive by the Damascus government and its allies. In late September 2015, Russia’s military began a campaign of airstrikes in Syria that has been instrumental in reversing Assad’s loss of territory. After more than 14 months of bombing, the regime seems to be on the brink of striking a decisive blow in the conflict.
The current negotiations surrounding the fate of the Aleppo are painstaking and complex. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Thursday that military experts and diplomats are expected to meet in Geneva on Saturday to discuss the exit of fighters and civilians from the city. Russia considers all the non-state armed groups in Aleppo to be terrorists, while the United States views some of them as legitimate rebel organizations. In his remarks on Thursday, Lavrov also said Russia’s strategy included “a merciless struggle against terrorists in Syria until their eradication.”
A potential deal for rebels’ and civilians’ exit from the city could be modeled on agreements reached in other Syrian cities, in which fighters surrendered in returned for safe passage to another opposition-held area of the country. The rebel-controlled province of Idlib has been floated as a possible destination for Aleppo rebels and residents, but aid officials say the area is already saturated with displaced people and is struggling to cope with ongoing fighting, including an intense campaign of airstrikes by Syrian and Russian warplanes.
Approximately 500 people are awaiting urgent medical evacuation from the besieged enclave, and according to the U.N., aid groups’ efforts to get them have proven arduous. Part of the difficulty stems from the large number of players on the ground: Syrian government and opposition authorities, the Russian military, various rebel groups and pro-Assad militias all have some role to play in ensuring safe passage. (ISIS’ forces are farther afield, and usually would have no role in humanitarian negotiations.)
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“It’s been painful in the extreme to sit night after night negotiating details with ambulances, food convoys, winter equipment, or spaces in hospitals, or in camps outside ready for evacuees,” says Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, in a phone interview. “In my 50 years of humanitarian negotiations, never have I seen so much effort going to so many frustrated efforts to get relief in and to get evacuees out.”
Even the population of the remaining rebel sector is in dispute. Prior to the current offensive, the U.N. said an estimated 250,000 people lived in besieged eastern Aleppo. Some Syrian NGOs reported 300,000 or more, while the regime insisted on a much lower figure. Now that the majority of that area has been retaken by the government, the U.N. human rights office reported “around 100,000 civilians” remained in the opposition-held area. “The overall number of displaced people remains extremely difficult to gauge at this time, as the U.N. does not have verifiable information about new displacements and people continue to arrive and leave existing shelters and lodge with family members,” said U.N. spokesperson Linda Tom in Damascus, in an email.
Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election is also expected to tilt the battlefield in Assad’s favor. During the campaign Trump suggested he favors cooperating with Russia in the fight against ISIS and raised questions about U.S. opposition to the Assad regime. Trump is expected to cut what little assistance America offers to rebel groups, but the specifics of his Syria policy remain to be seen. Regardless, Trump’s election ends any expectation that the United States will act decisively in the rebels’ favor.
If and when pro-Assad forces seize the rest of Aleppo, it will open a new phase of Syria’s conflict, undercutting the opposition’s relevance and all but guaranteeing the regime’s survival in the chunk of Syria it still controls. By sidelining some of the more mainstream rebel groups, a victory in Aleppo would also bolster the regime’s framing of the war as a binary conflict between the government and jihadist groups. Assad’s forces and allied could turn his attention toward opposition-held Idlib province in the north, or toward the forces of the Islamic State elsewhere in the country. The Assad regime will not regain control of the entire country, but it now has a substantial victory within its grasp.
Meanwhile, ordinary people in besieged eastern Aleppo are left contemplating the end. In response to a journalist’s question about the provenance of a set of photos on December 7, one resident responded in broken English, “It does not matter, we are about to die or arrest.”