Humanitarian deal between Syrian regime and rebels faces hurdles

Opposition forces have agreed to allow people to leave villages in return for Assad allowing more civilians to leave Aleppo.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Up to 40,000 civilians are still trapped in east Aleppo. Picture: Children play while waiting to be evacuated with others from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria, December 17, 2016.

Updated Dec 19, 2016

The Syrian regime and opposition forces agreed on Saturday to allow "humanitarian cases" to leave two besieged regime-held Shia villages in northwestern Syria, a step that would allow the resumption of civilian and rebel evacuations from eastern Aleppo which were suspended a day earlier, Hezbollah's media arm and a monitoring group said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the evacuation of some 4,000 people, including wounded, from the villages of Foua and Kfarya was expected to start on Saturday. The deal underscores the bitterly sectarian dimension to the conflict, where the country's Shia minority have mostly remained loyal to the regime amid a rebellion largely led by members of Syria's Sunni majority. It also mirrors other trades involving besieged civilians between rebel groups and the regime of Bashar al Assad, backed by Iran and Russia. 

The Observatory also said on Saturday that 29 buses were heading toward the two villages to start the evacuation process.  However, opposition fighters in the area on Friday refused to allow 4,000 people to leave, saying instead they will only allow 400 people to go, citing concerns over the civilians getting caught in the ongoing crossfire. It was not immediately clear whether the alleged evacuation limits set by the rebels in the two villages would affect evacuation efforts in Aleppo.

A Syrian state TV correspondent, speaking from Aleppo, said on Saturday the Aleppo evacuation would resume on condition that residents of Foua and Kfarya be allowed to leave.

A leader of the rebel group, Ahrar Al Sham, told Reuters on Saturday that Iran was responsible for the delay. 

"Iran and its sectarian proxies are using the humanitarian situation of our people in besieged Aleppo and preventing civilians from leaving until the evacuation of their groups in al-Foua and Kefyra," Sayal told Reuters in a telephone interview.

The ceasefire and evacuation from east Aleppo earlier this week marked the end of the rebels' most important stronghold in the country's civil war, now in its sixth year. The suspension demonstrated the fragility of the ceasefire deal, in which civilians and fighters in the few remaining blocks of the rebel enclave were to be taken to opposition-held territory nearby.

Reports differed on how many people remain in the Aleppo enclave, ranging from 15,000 to 40,000 civilians, along with an estimated 6,000 fighters.

With the agreement of all parties, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross have already managed to evacuate around 10,000 people, many of whom are in critical condition, an ICRC statement said. 

Farewell to Aleppo

When Modar Sheikho was forced to evacuate on Friday, he made a video bidding farewell to the city.

"We were asking for our freedom. This is what we get," he said against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings and thousands of people waiting for buses to take them away from Aleppo.

But even in his first hours of exile, the 28-year-old nurse longed to return.

"My soul is torn out more with each step away from Aleppo," he whispered in an audio message to The Associated Press, not wanting to wake other evacuees in their temporary home in a village west of the ancient city.

He and thousands of others held tight to their crumbling enclave despite a gruelling four years of war there. Bit by bit over three weeks, the regime offensive chipped away at their last refuge.

Despite the trauma they have suffered, for many residents of Aleppo being forced to leave the city is heartbreaking. Here a man reacts as he waits with others to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria, December 15, 2016. (Reuters)

Their realm of destroyed buildings and crater-filled roads in eastern Aleppo shrank from 17 square miles (44 square kilometres) to just one over a few weeks as forces loyal to Assad swept through, neighbourhood by neighbourhood.

The promise of boarding buses to safety was a relief. But for many like Sheikho, losing Aleppo was inconceivable.

Most activists seemed haunted by the city's struggle, saying they can't let go of their dream to create a Syria without Assad. They said they will continue their anti-regime activities somehow from wherever they end up.

One gynecologist who had refused to leave her patients said her husband forced her to flee to a regime-controlled area for safety.

The woman, who identified herself only as Farida to protect her family, earlier had sent her daughter out with thousands of other evacuees.

Farida said she could not stand living for even two days in the regime-controlled sector and fled to the countryside, where the rebels are in control.

"Despite how hard it was under siege and bombardment, I was at peace with myself," she said.

TRTWorld and agencies