“Aleppo is the eye of Syria and the citadel is its pupil”
Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty, pronounced these words in 1182, as he stood at the Citadel looking out over Aleppo.
How saddened Saladin would be today!
On July 17 2016 Assad sealed the entrance to East Aleppo thereby sealing its fate.
When the World Fails Syria
Babies in shrouds. An elderly man frail and emaciated. Children maimed. Destruction. Devastation. Sometimes it becomes almost impossible to watch those tragic images coming out of Syria. It is at moments like that that I recall Annie Sparrow’s words some time ago: “Don’t turn off your phone because Syrians can’t. They are confronted with this tragedy every day.”
Why do Syrians continue to be confronted with this tragedy day in and day out? Because we have failed them. Ban Ki Moon confessed that the United Nations had failed in Syria. Even Obama admitted failure. And where was this most evident? In Eastern Aleppo where approximately 275,000 civilians were besieged by Bashar al Assad’s regime and his allies aided by YPG Kurds in Sheikh Maqsoud.
Twitter goes red to draw attention to Aleppo.
Starved, bombed and winter coming on while the United Nations remained powerless – incapable of reining in either Bashar al Assad and or Vladimir Putin’s bombing of civilians, destroying infrastructure and incapable of providing a minimum of humanitarian aid!
How often do we hear: “Never again” »Never forget » It rings in my ears.
Unarmed civilians in East Aleppo were bombed by Bashar al Assad’s regime air force and his ally, Putin, using every imaginable prohibited weapon available. Anything that resembled a civil society was destroyed systematically – hospitals, medical facilities, schools, market places – anything that was anathema to Assad’s conception of power. Doctors and medical personnel became targets as did the White Helmets, those valiant first responders. Assad and his Russian ally spared nothing destroying all critical civilian infrastructure – electric grids, the water system leading to a lack of water but also water borne diseases, satellite relays and, by mid-November 2016, all hospitals were out of action after weeks of heavy air strikes.
Iran and its proxies, under Qassem Suleimani, had launched a grand offensive on East Aleppo with its elite Quds Forces, Lebanese Hezbollahs, Iraqi units, Afghan Hazaras… with approximately 6,000 to 8,000 hardened troops.
At the same time, Assad bombed – and Russia bombed – napalm, cluster bombs, barrel bombs, thermobaric bombs, bunker busters – while both denied hitting hospitals. The Syria Civil Defence Centres were hit time and again – and once again the UNSC was convened – and almost all UN humanitarian aid went to regime areas apart from one unique attempt to get aid into East Aleppo when it was destroyed at Urum al Kubra on 19 September 2016 by the Syrian regime bombing killing 12 people and destroying vital aid for civilians. A UN Human Rights Council Report dated 1st March 2017 confirmed that it was, in fact, pro-Assad airstrikes that bombed the UN convoy.
Starve or Surrender
When the regime seized the Castello Road on 17 July 2016, the last main road into Eastern Aleppo, residents could no longer leave and basic supplies of goods and fuel could not enter. As supplies ran low so prices surged – a cucumber rose from 5SYP (23US cents) prior to the war, to 100 SYP a week after Castello Road was closed.
For a brief moment in August 2016, rebels managed to cut the regime’s supply line into the government held part of West Aleppo when the siege was broken at al Ramouseh. Hopes were raised and fresh vegetables and essentials arrived from Idlib.
It was short-lived as the regime and its allies retook the Ramouseh area on 8 September 2016 totally encircling citizens depriving them of food, fuel and humanitarian aid. Assad imposed his #Starve_Or_Surrender tactics on the city once again. By mid September, the Syria government had not granted “a single permit’ to the United Nations to bring aid into the besieged city. Walid al-Muallem, Syrian’s Foreign Minister, refused any aid convoys to besieged areas claiming they would be counter-productive because they would provide food and medical aid to « terrorists ».
A Day of Anger for #Aleppo 31st July 2016
Rebel-held Eastern Aleppo was officially declared “besieged” the 6 October 2016 as it complied with the three criteria – military encirclement; the lack of humanitarian access and the lack of free movement for civilians.In October, 2016, Stephen O’Brien, the UN Humanitarian chief, called the besieged areas of Eastern Aleppo, “a living hell.
Wissam Zarqa, in an interview early October, described the difficulties encountered inside Eastern Aleppo where there were few vegetables, no cooking gas, no supply of drinking water due to air strikes on pumping stations, no electricity which made getting water from wells difficult and more expensive and where fuel for bakeries was running out.
Yet despite a precarious situation, Wissam, like many skilled workers, teachers, engineers, lawyers, doctors, nurses and university students, had chosen to stay on in Aleppo.
Rebel factions had stockpiled foodstuffs months earlier too – not just for the fighters but for their wives and children as well but as the siege tightened vegetables and items like sugar became rare. And some missed their cigarettes!
Bansky, the well-known graffiti artist, drew attention to the plight of Aleppo too.
By mid-November, warehouses were almost empty and rations had been reduced to meager portions. The last UN World Food Program food rations were distributed on 13 November 2016 and, as most NGOs were reliant on WFP for supplies, they also ran out. Raed Al Saleh, Head of the Syria Civil Defence, or White Helmets, warned that residents were just 10 days from starvation and death from lack of medical supplies on 24 November. Prices went sky high.
Then there was that famous apple.
As the UN proved incapable of providing humanitarian aid to besieged East Aleppo, calls for aid airdrops were taken up – dates were given that came and went by. At the same time, the WFP (World Food Program) was proudly displaying its efforts to supply Foua Kafira and Deir Ezzor with airdrops. Nobody denies civilians there were in need but given the dire situation in Aleppo, it seemed almost indecent. To this day, JPADS are being used to airdrop arms by the Coalition to those fighting ISIS but even that was rejected too.
There had been a comparative lull in regime and Russian air strikes prior to the US presidential elections on 8 November 2016 but with Donald Trump’s election followed by his telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin, Russian air strikes resumed and intensified on rebel held Eastern Aleppo. Russian bombardments were so massive they were described as akin to carpet bombing.
Despite Russia and Assad’s denial, hospitals and medical facilities were deliberately targeted and destroyed – even those built four floors underground with bunker busters.
An Al Jazeera crew was reporting on survivors of earlier Russian Syrian bombing raids on 19 November 2016 in a children’s hospital in East Aleppo when they found themselves in darkness following yet another air raid as medical staff evacuated patients. They filmed these nurses as they grabbed these new born babies from damaged incubators – a highly emotional moment. It was reassuring to learn the babies survived. Field hospitals were being constantly and deliberately targeted. The names of the hospitals were withheld to avoid further bombing.
By 19 November 2016, all medical facilities in rebel-held East Aleppo had been destroyed by intensified bombing as confirmed by the WHO. Even warehouses with medical supplies were targeted. All White Helmets’ equipment and vehicles were destroyed and they had run out of body bags and shrouds to wrap the numerous corpses.
Human Rights Watch on chlorine attacks in East Aleppo on Al Fardous 8th December 2016 showing how they were co-ordinated with military attacks.
Detained and Forcibly Conscripted
At the end of November 2016, as regime forces advanced, thousands of civilians fled Eastern Aleppo towards West Aleppo where dozens of military aged men, under 40 years old, were detained and forcibly conscripted to bolster a much reduced Syrian army as they were trying to pass the Ramouseh Check Point.
Most of them were teachers, medics and aid workers who were on a so-called “black list” accused by the regime of trying to help the rebellion. Everything they had on them was taken – papers phone …Earlier detainees had already been sent to fight on front lines such as Deir Ezzor where some were killed within days of their arrivals – they weren’t fighters – just civilians seeking freedom from an oppressive corrupt dictatorship.
Brave anti-Assad civilian activists, media activists, medical personnel and White Helmets were courageous enough to speak out openly knowing how they risked their lives as they decried the dire humanitarian situation in East Aleppo on Periscope or on Twitter:
There was something ominous as various humanitarian organisations began pulling out of Aleppo. They had spared nothing in their efforts to save lives – many of them anonymous heroes and heroines.
Rhetoric Replaced Reaction
While East Aleppo was besieged and starved in harsh winter conditions and abandoned by the international community – rhetoric replaced reaction. How many times the UNSC was convened to no avail – it became a stage for Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN, whose rhetoric matched none but for whose actions Syrians waited in vain – blocked by Russia’s constant veto.
Samantha Power’s memorable speech will remain as a testimony to what was happening in those final days before Aleppo fell as she addressed those three UN members – Syria, Russia and Iran and their Iraqi militias as they continued their carnage in Aleppo – a massacre of innocents. She accused them of showing no mercy in what the UN calls “a complete meltdown of humanity”.
On 8 October 2016, Russia had vetoed a resolution calling for the end of military flights over Aleppo and on 5 December 2016 a resolution calling for a seven day ceasefire was vetoed once again by Russia and China. Russia has, in fact, vetoed six texts on the Syria conflict.
The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) finally voted 9th December 2016 on a demand for the immediate cessation of hostilities in Syria, humanitarian aid access and the lifting of all sieges including Aleppo. It even asked the UN secretary general to report in 45 days on its implementation. Wishful thinking given the context.
Concerns for civilians’ safety were more than justified, despite Russia’s envoy to the UN, Churkov’s assurances that nobody was going to harm civilians, when the UN Human Rights Office confirmed reports of a slaughter of 82 non-combatants being shot in the street as they were trying to flee or in their homes in areas recently taken including 11 women and 13 children in Bustan al-Qasr, al-Fardous, Al-Kalasah and al-Saliheen on 12th December.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, December 2016, the intense Russian Syrian regime bombing campaign on East Aleppo and the use of “unguided munitions including concrete penetrating bombs even of 500 kilogram class” in an urban area amounts to war crimes. Russian air strikes were responsible for approximately two thirds of the 1753 victims in East Aleppo in the ten weeks before East Aleppo fell, from October 1st to December 14th 2016, more precisely 1252 while only 2% of the victims were rebels.
Leaflets fell and so did bombs on terrified residents in Aleppo!
As regime forces advanced and rebel-held territory was even further reduced, civilians inside East Aleppo felt, quite rightly, abandoned. They exchanged their final testaments while continuing to plead with the international community in vain.
Last Messages From Aleppo
They described the suffering of civilians and denounced Russian lies about humanitarian corridors that were either non-existent or where regime snipers killed desperate families trying to escape.
Brita Hagihasan, the Mayor of Aleppo, had been unable to return to Aleppo once it was besieged so he had tirelessly travelled throughout Europe to draw attention to the dire situation. He was highly critical of the international community for failing to halt government and Russian airstrikes on the city deliberately targeting markets, schools, hospitals and doctors. He even wrote to Pope Francis in the hope he would eventually be able to intervene.
Many residents deliberately set fire to their homes, cars and other belongings before they left the city so they would not fall into regime and its allies’ hands.
Of course that did not deter Shabbiya doing what they know best how to do – pillaging houses recently abandoned as their owners fled.
The United Nations called it « Forced Displacement » as residents were obliged to leave East Aleppo in those ignominious regime green buses and quit their homes that had belonged to their families for centuries; other terms included “evacuation” or “eviction” or even “exodus”. Whatever the term, as we witnessed their distress waiting outside in sub-zero temperatures some with tiny babies even, lacking food and medical care waiting to die during those last few days, the tragedy of East Aleppo will join the now familiar names of Stalingrad, Grozny, Srebrenica and Sarajevo.
The evacuation process proved to be a series of intermittent delays and breakdowns in a fragile slow moving operation in freezing conditions. For days, thousands waited at the departure point in bombed out apartment blocks in the Al-Amirah district to be evacuated. As heavy snow fell in sub-zero temperatures several deaths were reported including four little babies who froze to death. Some had simply a few dates to eat. Yet, despite the cold, civilians preferred not to seek shelter fearing they might not get out. They lit fires with anything that was available in vain efforts to keep warm burning furniture, plastic, and their personal belongings that they couldn’t take with them.
Buses were so overloaded that some were forced to ride in the baggage compartments.
A day after the evacuation began, Iranian and Hezbollah militias held Convoy No 13, carrying about 1000 people, hostage near Ramouseh where passengers were beaten and robbed of all of their possessions, 4 civilians were killed and others taken hostage despite the presence of members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The militias were demanding that the two besieged Sh’ite towns, Foua and Kafira be part of the evacuation agreement. An agreement was eventually reached including the towns of Madaya and Zabadani besieged by Hezbollah fighters and most of the civilians were sent back to Aleppo. When the buses eventually arrived at these two Shi’ite towns, they were set on fire delaying once again the evacuations. Further discussions and the convoys began their evacuations once again.
Convoys were stranded at checkpoints where they endured very long hours in freezing temperatures without food, heating, baby milk, toilets and even the right to get out of the buses surrounded as they were with hostile militias.
On 19 December 2016, the United Nations Security Council finally reached agreement to carry out “adequate neutral monitoring and direct observations on evacuations from the eastern districts of Aleppo.” It came much too late for the majority for those being evacuated by the time the observers were deployed but it was noteworthy in that Russia did not impede its passage.
Harrowing moments as civilians quit East Aleppo
White Helmets Ishmael extremely poignant last night in East Aleppo
Aleppo has its own « little » Heroes
5 year old Omran Daqneesh was pulled from rubble by White Helmets in August 2016 in rebel-held district of Qaterji East Aleppo.
These 47 little orphans underwent the siege imposed by Assad’s regime where they encountered hunger and cold are from the underground Moumayazoum Orphanage and send their last message from Eastern Aleppo.
The 47 orphans are in fact relatives and one person takes care of them. Their fathers were either killed or imprisoned. They are now in Aleppo countryside and terrified as they are threatened once again by bombs.
Defending Eastern Aleppo
4,000 rebel fighters and civilians made up the final convoys that departed the last square kilometer of territory which was in name at least the last rebel controlled area on 22 December 2016 prior to the city’s final surrender.
Victory, as a young FSA rebel noted, was for the moment a distant hope considering they were virtually fighting the whole world- Assad, Putin, Trump, Iranian and Iraqi military and now Egyptian. Not to forget PYD, YPG, ISIS, JFS and others whose names he didn’t know yet.
A Turkey Russia Axis
Turkey’s role in East Aleppo was ambiguous to say the very least. Following the warming of relations between Russia and Turkey in June 2016, Aleppo loomed large on their agenda. Through a tacit agreement, Erdogan prioritised his attacks on Daesh and Kurdish YPG with his Euphrates Shield on the Syria Turkey border in the Northern Aleppo Governorate leaving Putin a free hand in Eastern Aleppo. The weapons supply from Turkey to FSA rebels remaining in Aleppo also dried up. Meanwhile Erdogan remained strangely silent about what was going on although he is said to have negotiated the evacuation of the rebels to quit Aleppo safe and sound for the northern Idlib countryside. There many waited a few weeks before joining the battle for Al Bab under the Euphrates Shield flag.
Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world on the Silk Road, that had withstood earlier invasions including even Genghis Khan, is now reduced to rubble.
While UNESCO and media deplored Daesh’s dastardly deeds – as we all do –destroying the Tetrapylon and the façade of its Roman Theatre in Palmyra on 19 January 2017 there seems to be a deafening silence on the regime’s destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage, and in particular in Aleppo. According to https://twitter.com/snhr over more than 150 notable archaeological sites, ancient buildings and famous landmarks, such as the Old Souk in central Aleppo, were destroyed. Russian air strikes have systematically destroyed mosques too.
Defend Aleppo and Debunk Assad
Aleppo 2016 is not Hama 1982 when Hafez al Assad was able to impose a complete blackout there and carry out a massacre where over 20,000, were estimated to have been killed and where there are no documents available pertaining to this tragedy.
His son, Bashar al Assad, has tried to impose a similar blackout but it is no longer possible in the day and age of social media and smartphones. He has silenced foreign reporters – some forever, sadly, as we think of Gilles Jacquier, Marie Colvin and Remy Ochlik among the many others. He has deliberately targeted extremely courageous media activists who have paid with their lives so the world could know exactly what was going on inside Syria.
To counter Assad and Putin’s well-oiled propaganda and their armies of trolls, our only “weapons” are our keyboards to debunk https://twitter.com/RT.com or https://twitter.com/sputnikint and Assad’s media SANA
Hashtags have proved extremely effective to draw attention to the tragedy of Aleppo and my admiration for their creativity. Moreover, Tweetstorms proved to be among our most efficient “weapons” for Aleppo allowing us to inform and reach out literally across the world, and at the same time, debunk Assad and Putin’s media propaganda. I’d like to thank, among the many others involved: https://twitter.com/hopesarout https://twitter.com/IranArabSpring https://twitter.com/MostafaMe4 https://twitter.com/JennRollins1002 Needless to say, an enormous thanks to all those who participated too without whom no storm is a success.
On a personal note, like others, I too had prepared an “East Aleppo List” and it was with a certain trepidation every morning, I checked to be sure everyone was there. It was very much the same as I mentally “ticked off” each one as they made it out of Aleppo with a sigh of relief.
The Guardian 22 December 2016 The Battle for Eastern Aleppo in maps: how rebel territory shrank https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2016/nov/30/battle-eastern-aleppo-maps-rebel-territory-shrinking