President Bashar al-Assad’s forces seized a wide swath of rebel territory in the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo, spurring the flight of tens of thousands of civilians amid intense fighting that threatens the collapse of the opposition’s last major urban stronghold.
Activists and rebel leaders said pro-Assad forces on Monday recaptured the northern districts of the city, which has been divided between opposition forces on the east and Assad forces on the west since the rebels first stormed Syria’s second city in 2012.
The government advance means that over the course of a few days, rebels have lost about a third of their territory in Aleppo, which has become the most crucial — and bloodiest — battleground of Syria’s five-year civil war.
While past offensives in Aleppo led to intense jockeying among world powers to halt the fighting and maintain the status quo, the latest struggle has been marked by the absence of it — at least on the rebel side.
Key opposition supporters appear unable or unwilling to intervene. The Turkish government is focused on negotiating with Russia in an effort to weaken a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria that has stirred tensions with Turkey’s Kurdish population across the border.
Washington, always a reluctant rebel backer, has made no attempt at brokering a deal with the Kremlin to stop the bloodshed as it did in September. Rebels believe the lack of a US diplomatic initiative is a direct result of Donald Trump’s election, which they believe has disoriented US officials with the prospect of a pro-Assad administration in the White House.
UN Syria envoy Steffan de Mistura tried but failed to get negotiations off the ground.
Faced with uncertainty in Washington, Mr Assad’s patrons, Russia and Iran, have moved to take the upper hand both in Aleppo and the wider Syrian war. They are throwing in military assets, with Moscow providing air support as Iran and allied Shia foreign fighters from Lebanon and Iraq pour into the battle.
There is a state of panic across the besieged districts of Aleppo. All of eastern Aleppo has reached the peak of suffering — from the hunger, to the cold, to being cut off from the world
The rebel-held neighbourhoods of Aleppo have been under a fierce two-week Russian-backed campaign, with aircraft pounding the area night and day. About 250,000 people have been trapped with little food or few medical supplies during the months-long siege. Many fled as the shifting front lines opened escape routes.
“Earlier we warned about the regime trying to split besieged [rebel-held] Aleppo in two — instead, they took the northern districts completely,” said Yaser Alyoussef, a spokesman for the Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebel forces.
Residents and medics say at least one district was repeatedly bombarded on Monday with poison gas, which they suspected to be chlorine.
“There is a state of panic across the besieged districts of Aleppo. All of eastern Aleppo has reached the peak of suffering — from the hunger, to the cold, to being cut off from the world,” said Mohammed Khandaqani, a medic inside the city, who described the situation as “the worst moment since the revolution began in Aleppo”.
Mr Assad hopes that if he can crush this opposition stronghold he will relegate the rebels to a rump insurgency in the northern countryside, and gain the upper hand in any future political settlement.
Aleppo residents say about 30,000 people have fled, with many heading deeper into rebel areas, and at least 10,000 fleeing to government-held districts or to a city enclave held by Kurdish militants, who say they have maintained neutrality between rebel and Assad forces but whom the opposition accuses of colluding with the regime.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said about 6,000 people had poured into the Kurdish-controlled Sheikh Maqsoud district, which has been spared much of the bombing. It also said Kurdish forces had seized at least two rebel districts for themselves amid the regime advances.
Video uploaded by the Kurdish forces showed crowds of people streaming towards them, carrying rucksacks and bin bags filled with blankets and clothes. “You’re safe now. Don’t be afraid,” some of the Kurdish fighters said, helping families carrying crying children. One woman knelt on the ground and prayed as soon as she reached safety.
Opposition neighbourhoods further from the front lines were inundated with families fleeing.
“Every home is filled, and some were even put in buildings already destroyed by shelling,” said Manal, a resident who asked to be identified by only her first name for safety. “I realise our death is near, and what angers me about it is the silence of the international community.”
Hisham Skaff, member of one of Aleppo’s neighbourhood opposition councils, called on rebels to create a passage into the opposition-held countryside.
“It’s impossible now to ask people to withstand more,” he said. “I am a son of Aleppo, this city runs in my veins … I feel like a plant about to be ripped out from its roots.”
Syria’s civil war began as peaceful protests in 2011 but quickly degenerated into a struggle of warring factions that have fragmented the country. Rebels hold patches of territory, mostly in the north-west, while Kurdish forces hold much of the north-east. Mr Assad’s forces hold the coast and most of central Syria, including the capital, Damascus. Meanwhile jihadi forces such as Isis have exploited the chaos to seize swaths of territory across the country.
Rebel leaders privately acknowledged this has become their darkest hour in the war.
“There are no other steps to take — it’s over … all the other powers are following their own interests” said one rebel leader. “A lot of innocent people are going to die — most of them poor. Some may not even know what cause they’re dying for.”