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Battle for Aleppo: ‘It felt like the last goodbye’

When word came that a shaky evacuation deal had been reached, the remaining residents in the last patch of rebel-held Aleppo got moving. Doctors readied their patients, mothers packed their children’s bags and young men burnt their motorbikes to spite regime forces who might have wanted to take them.

Relief mixed with heartbreak for residents who have lived in a world more nightmare than reality. Over a months-long siege, as forces backing President Bashar al-Assad closed in on the eastern districts, they suffered bombardment day and night, counted dwindling food supplies and tried to forget the shouts of victims trapped under buildings brought down by Russian and Syrian air strikes.

Instead of taking in the moment, Mohammed Khandaqani, a 28-year-old lawyer-turned opposition activist, had a mission: to find a cousin, Imad, gone missing in one of the most brutal battles of Syria’s five-year civil war.

“Our world has just collapsed, completely,” he says, his voice cracking on a phone call. He searched for Imad in the streets, neighbours’ homes and, finally, the morgue. “Everything here has been destroyed, and there is no one to turn to any more.”

For four years, eastern Aleppo was a rebel bastion from which the opposition hoped it would bring an end to Mr Assad’s rule. Instead, he brought down theirs. Aleppo was the last major urban stronghold the opposition had left.

After months of siege and relentless bombardment — helped by Russian warplanes and thousands of foreign Shia fighters linked to his regional patron, Iran — Mr Assad’s forces began a ground campaign three weeks ago, seizing rebel-held areas at a stunning pace. By Tuesday, Syrian forces were closing in on the last four rebel districts, a space of just 2 sq km. As gunfire rattled and shells rained down, frantic residents and opposition activists sent out desperate goodbyes on social media.

“There is no place to go. It’s the last days,” says activist Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, in a video published online. “Don’t believe any more in the United Nations. Don’t believe any more in the international community.”

The courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque. Its minaret was destroyed by fighting in 2013 © Alamy; AFP

Civilian plight

To many, it felt they were watching the international order collapse. World leaders who had condemned atrocities in Syria for years had little to say about the end of the most dramatic siege of the war. There was no intervention by the American superpower to ease their plight. Instead, it was Russia and Turkey that struck a fragile ceasefire deal to allow the civilians still in rebel-held Aleppo — likely to number in the thousands — to leave after weeks of back-and-forth talks.

While others said their goodbyes, Mr Khandaqani roamed the streets with his cousin’s photo until he found a man who said he saw Imad as he was struck in the head by rocket shrapnel, and had taken his body to a nearby clinic.

“We went through the bodies one by one, some of them had been there two or three days. They were scattered on the clinic floor, the sidewalk outside,” Mr Khandaqani says. “What if someone buried him thinking he was their relative? Why did this happen? Only God knows where he is now.”

By Friday, the evacuation plan had stalled amid blasts in rebel areas and aid agencies, including the World Health Organisation and International Red Cross, were told to leave the area. Russia spoke of “liquidating” pockets of resistance to “liberate” the final rebel strip.

The constant on-again, off-again deals this week had so frightened Mr Khandaqani that he chose to send his wife and baby daughter over to the government-held western half of the city, hoping their ties to an outspoken activist like him would pass unnoticed at security screenings.

“It felt like the last goodbye — when will I see them again?” he asks, breaking into tears. “I sent them to the place that was the source of the killing. The place that sent the bombs to us.”

They joined more than 100,000 believed to have fled to the government side of Aleppo in recent weeks, and with that became part of Syria’s great fragmentation. More than half of its 21m people have been displaced. An estimated 450,000 lives were lost, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Nearly 5m have fled the country, with hundreds of thousands arriving in Europe and reshaping its politics.

The Al-Madina souk, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, before and after the conflict destroyed many sections of it © Alamy; Getty Images

“Syria was thought by some western officials to be a containable conflict. In fact, it has created a tide of refugees and exacerbated jihadi terrorism, both of which fed the rise of populism and the rise of rightwing fanaticism that is changing politics in both the US and Europe,” says Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain.

Syria’s conflict began as a protest in 2011 against four decades of Assad family rule, but within a year it had devolved into an armed insurgency with the rebels largely from the Sunni Muslim majority. The struggle took on a sectarian tone, and many minorities, fearing the rise of Islamists in the rebellion’s ranks, flocked to Mr Assad’s side.

Members of his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, staffed security forces, while Shia foreign fighters bankrolled by Iran joined the fight. Foreign Sunni militants poured into Islamist groups, including Isis, the al-Qaeda splinter group now infamous for seizing nearly half of Syrian territory and swaths of Iraq. More moderate rebels in places like Aleppo were weakened by the Islamists’ rise.

The Assad regime’s victory in Aleppo has the potential to transform both the conflict in Syria and the balance of power in the region. “I believe what we will see after the battle of Aleppo is the imposition of a new security architecture in the northern Middle East for the next several decades,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “It includes Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, all with pro-Iranian regimes and some Russian influence.”

The US still retains a formidable military presence in the region and has close — though increasingly testy — alliances with Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. But Russia’s intervention over the past year has grabbed the attention of every other nation in the Middle East, many of whom will now see Moscow as a more important regional player and potentially as a secondary supplier of arms after the US.

Citizens get on buses to be evacuated from al-Sukkari, a rebel-held area of eastern Aleppo, on Thursday © Reuters

Although the war in Syria will not end with the fall of Aleppo, the US and its allies have been left with much weaker options on the ground. One of the last rebel strongholds will be in the northwestern province of Idlib, where many Aleppo fighters may move but where jihadi groups including Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate, play the dominant role and could further radicalise what is left of these fighters.

Mr Assad may be too weak to exert control over the rest of the country in the short term. Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, cites Russian estimates that the regime only has 20,000-25,000 deployable soldiers at its disposal. In the very week that Aleppo succumbed, the regime lost control of Palmyra, the ancient city in the centre of the country that it had recaptured this year, to Isis.

“The Assad regime has a fundamental manpower problem,” he says.

As Syria’s largest city and economic hub before the war, Aleppo did not just symbolise a last rebel stand, but a country whose heart and mind were split in two. For four years, it was divided between the rebel east and loyalist west. Government supporters in Aleppo, who celebrated the regime’s advance with flags and honking horns, have their own resentments. Their loved ones died under daily rebel rocket fire, and they too had once been under siege. Some posted pictures of rebels executing Syrian soldiers — a reminder, they argued, that it was not only government forces who would be accused of massacres.

Thousands in the east of the city grew bitter watching the celebrations. “Right now, people are just thinking of how to get out of this massacre. But there is a lot we will remember later,” says one activist, who asked not to be named because some family members were in the west. “People will want vengeance . . . The war isn’t over just because Aleppo is.”

Scaling back support

Aleppo never fully embraced the rebellion. From the beginning, it was ragtag fighters from the countryside who in July 2012 brought the uprising to their wealthier, urban countrymen.

A poster of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the recaptured Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood of Aleppo © AFP

The rebels will probably be relegated to a mostly rural insurgency that will be more radicalised and alienated now that foreign backers including Washington, Ankara and the Gulf Arab countries are scaling back support.

As civilians in east Aleppo huddled with their bags in the winter cold, some wept as others crowded on to notorious green buses — so often used by Assad forces to evacuate vanquished opposition districts that they have become a symbol of defeat.

Mr Khandaqani is not in a rush. “A lot of people are in a hurry to leave — they’re afraid the regime could change its mind. I’m going to take as much time as I can,” he says. “I want to say goodbye to this city, all its streets, to my friends.”

He has abandoned the search for Imad’s body, hoping his cousin was among the many bodies that locals regularly bury in anonymous graves when relatives take too long to reclaim them.

“Sometimes people do the right thing,” he says. “It’s what I have to believe, that he was buried.”

Via FT