A ceasefire has been announced and a deal agreed for Syrian rebel fighters and civilians to leave eastern Aleppo, Russia’s UN ambassador has said. However the UN’s representative in the besieged city describes the situation as “a total meltdown of humanity”.
The rebels have been defeated in the city after a major government offensive backed by Russian air power.
Word of the deal came as the UN reported killings by pro-government forces. The UN’s human rights office said it had reliable evidence that 82 civilians were killed, adding that many more may have died.
It is hard to know exactly how many people are in the besieged areas, although one US official with knowledge of efforts to secure safe passage for people in the city told the BBC there were around 50,000 people.
Other local sources say there could be as many as 100,000, with people arriving from areas recently taken by the government.
Unicef quoted a doctor in the city as saying: “Many children, possibly more than 100, unaccompanied or separated from their families, are trapped in a building, under heavy attack in east Aleppo.”
Ibrahim abu-Laith, a spokesman for the White Helmets volunteer rescue group, said 90% of their equipment was out of operation and only one medical point was still working in the besieged areas. There was no first aid equipment left.
Volunteers were using their hands to pull people out of rubble, but some 70 people were stuck and could not be extracted.
The UN’s humanitarian adviser on Syria, Jan Egeland, spoke of “massacres of unarmed civilians, of young men, of women, children, health workers”, saying a pro-government Iraqi Shia militia was responsible. He described the situation as a total breakdown of humanity.
The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis.
US ambassador Samantha Power said the Syrian government and its allies Russia and Iran bore responsibility for killings of civilians. Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin denied humanitarian abuses were taking place.
In terms of the country’s four-years-and-counting civil war, there is no question this is a major blow to the armed opposition and an extraordinary turn-around in the fortunes of President Bashar al-Assad.
It is also a major victory for the Russians, the Iranians, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and some Iraqi Shia militias.
But the rebels still control quite large areas of the country, as do the jihadists of so-called Islamic State. So the war continues.
Observers believe Aleppo will be cleansed of the the anti-Assad opposition and anyone who sympathised with it. Those who flee, or who win the mercy of the conquerors will face exile, likely in Idlib province, a bastion of the al-Qaida inspired Jabhat al-Nusra.
Idlib will hardly be a refuge. It will be the last urban stronghold – except for Isis-held Raqqa – outside regime control. Rebel communities from other defeated corners of Syria have already been sent there after regime victories, where they have continued to be bombed by Russian and Syrian jets.
The presence of jihadis offers the perfect pretext for the attacks to continue – Assad’s regime has constantly tried to paint those who oppose his dictatorship as members of those terrorist groups.
Assad’s claims that the fate of Aleppo will prove decisive in the war will probably be proved true. But stability and Assad’s efforts to remain in power will remain elusive for a long time.
The misery and uncertainty is entering a new phase. But it is not over yet.