The battle for one of the most contested Syrian cities in the nation's long-running civil war, Aleppo, is approaching its climax. According to Reuters, the Syrian army and its allies announced the capture of a large swath of eastern Aleppo from rebels on Monday - by some estimates as much as 40% of the militant held part - in an accelerating attack that threatens to crush the opposition in its most important urban stronghold.
In a major breakthrough in the government's push to retake the whole city, regime forces captured six rebel-held districts of eastern Aleppo over the weekend, including Masaken Hanano, the biggest of those. On Sunday, the 13th day of the operation, they also took control of the adjacent neighborhoods of Jabal Badra and Baadeeen and captured three others.
As is customary, when it comes to describing events in Syria, one has two biased narratives to choose from: one from the perspective of the Western forces, for whom the protagonist are the Syrian rebels, and Assad is the enemy, and then there is the Syrian/Russian point of view, in which the rebels are aligned with the Islamic State (and are supported by the US) and the liberation of the country entails removing both at the same time.
Covering the former "angle" first, Reuters writes that two rebel officials said the insurgents, facing fierce bombardment and ground attacks, had withdrawn from the northern part of eastern Aleppo to a more defensible front line along a big highway after losses that threatened to split their enclave. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights - a UK funded "think tank" operated by just one man, who in 2013 was responsible for the Assad "chemical attack" fabricated YouTube clip - said the northern portion of eastern Aleppo lost by the rebels amounted to more than a third of the territory they had held, calling it the biggest defeat for the opposition in Aleppo since 2012.
Thousands of residents were reported to have fled. A rebel fighter reached by Reuters said there was "extreme, extreme, extreme pressure" on the insurgents. Part of the area lost by the rebels was taken over by a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia from another part of Aleppo in what rebels described as an agreed handover, a rare example of cooperation between groups that have fought each other.
What appears to be the imminent loss of Aleppo by rebel forces has sent shockwaves of demoralization across the war-torn country, and hundreds of miles to the south, people have started to leave the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Khan al-Shih for other parts of the country controlled by insurgents under a deal with the government, the Observatory said.
As Reuters adds, capturing eastern Aleppo would be the biggest victory for President Bashar al-Assad since the start of the uprising against him in 2011, restoring his control over the whole city apart from a Kurdish-held area that has not fought against him.
For Assad, taking back Aleppo would shore up his grip over the main population centers of western Syria where he and his allies have focused their firepower while much of the rest of the country remains outside their control. More importantly, it would be seen as a victory for his allies, Russia and Iran, which have outmanoeuvred the West and Assad's regional enemies through direct military intervention. It would be a major slap in the face for the US and its allies.
"What happened in the last two days is a great strategic accomplishment by the Syrian army and allies," a fighter with a militia on the government side in the Aleppo area said.
Meanwhile, animosity toward the US is building even among its erstwhile "friends" as rebels said their foreign patrons including the United States have abandoned them to their fate in Aleppo.
While some of the rebels in Aleppo have received support from states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States during the war, they say their foreign backers have failed them as Assad and his allies unleash enormous firepower.
"The situation is very bad and the reason is the round the clock shelling with all types of weapons," said Abdul Salam Abdul Razaq, military spokesman for the Nour al-Din al-Zinki group, one of the main Aleppo rebel factions.
"There is very fierce fighting going on now and the regime and its supporters are destroying whole areas to allow themselves to advance," he told Reuters. Another fighter said there was heavy attrition in "people and ammunition".
Assad has 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. A military news service run by Hezbollah declared the northern portion of eastern Aleppo under full state control. The Russian Defence Ministry said about 40 percent of the eastern part of the city had been "freed" from militants by Syrian government forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the Syrian army’s advances with members of his Security Council on Monday, Russian news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.
To preserve some pride, officials with two Aleppo rebel groups said rebels had withdrawn to areas they could more easily defend, particularly after losing the Hanano housing complex area on Saturday.
"It is a withdrawal for the sake of being able to defend and reinforce the front lines," an official in the Jabha Shamiya rebel group told Reuters. In other words, it's not a defeat, just a strategic retreat.
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Meanwhile, the same narrative from a biased Russian angle, as reported earlier by RT, sounds as follows:
More than 3,000 civilians have left the eastern part of the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo in the last 24 hours, the Russian Center for Reconciliation said. It later reported that about 40 percent of the militant-held part of the city has been liberated. Some 3,179 people, including 1,519 children – among them 138 newborn babies – have left Eastern Aleppo through the ‘humanitarian corridors’ set up by Syrian government forces, Russian Reconciliation Center said on Monday. The center reported that 12 neighborhoods, comprising roughly 40 percent of the territory previously controlled by the militants, have been cleared.
According to the Russian Center for Reconciliation, more than 80,000 people live in the newly liberated areas of the eastern part of the city. It added that more than 5,000 people fled from the southern districts of eastern Aleppo, which are still controlled by the militants, to the areas held by government forces. More than 100 militants laid down their arms and left eastern Aleppo through the special corridors, the statement said.
Despite joint humanitarian efforts undertaken by the Syrian government and Russia, thousands of civilians are still kept in the eastern part of the city by militants. To minimize damage to the civilian population, the Russian and Syrian militaries suspended airstrikes and set up 'humanitarian corridors' for both non-combatants and militants willing to leave the area.
However, the corridors are vulnerable to militant small arms fire and shelling, which complicates the evacuation of civilians. RT's Lizzie Phelan, reporting from Syria, said the government army's advance in the eastern part of Aleppo “has enabled civilians to leave the area,” and that there are thousands of people desperate to flee. Those who managed to escape told RT crew the militants deprived them of all means to survive, including food and water.
“The militants are lying, they are holding us there, even now they are holding families [in the area]. They don't let people go,” one man said.
“Every time we tried to flee they caught us and turned us back,” a young woman added.
As RT concludes, "currently, the Syrian Army is continuing their large-scale offensive in eastern Aleppo, targeting Al-Nusra Front and other radical militants still controlling the area. The troops have already established control over important blocks and districts in the eastern part of the city."
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Readers can decide which narrative they like better, but no matter how one spins it, whether Assad's ongoing acts are of barbaric brutality or altruistically humanistic, should Aleppo fall to the Assad regime, the Syrian civil war will enter into a new phase, one where the regime will now have the clear upper hand, and will set back the US allied effort years, giving Trump few options if he wants to reengage in Syria: expand the US presence by orders of magnitude, including overt ground forces, or simply withdraw.