What is Aleppo?

Everything you wanted to know about Aleppo but were too afraid to ask.

I’ve been asked the following questions in tweets, emails, and conversations, in the last couple of days. I thought it might help to compile them here.

If you’ve just heard about Aleppo, or you’ve been trying to follow and it’s all gotten a little complicated — read on.

What’s Aleppo?

Aleppo is a city in Syria. It was an industrial centre, and had a pre-war population of around 2.5 million people. The city boasts a rich history — most obvious in its architecture — though much of the old city has been destroyed in the war.

Did the war just start there?

Not at all. There has been conflict in Aleppo city since July 2012. To paraphrase enormously, by the end of 2012 the city was more or less divided in half — rebel forces held half of the city, and the government held the other half. Battles have continued in and around the city and its outskirts, particularly for strategically important sights like the airport, main access roads, and army bases.

Aleppo old city frontlines. Copyright Emma Beals, 2014.

Why’s it suddenly in the news then?

In July, access to the east of Aleppo, the half that’s under control of the rebel’s, was cut off. Since then, with one brief exception, no aid has been able to get into east-Aleppo, nor have civilians been able to get out. During short-lived ceasefires, and ongoing diplomatic discussions, there has been a lot of back and forward about humanitarian aid access, and humanitarian corridors, but these haven’t eventuated.

The siege was tightened over the course of months and then in recent weeks, military pressure has been exerted on the area. The government troops, with the help of Russian airstrikes and Iranian and Hezbollah militias, have managed to take back a large amount of the rebel-held east of the city.

The military offensive has been brutal, with many killed, injured, and displaced. The area held by the rebels is now only a small handful of neighbourhoods, and those living there are fearing for their lives. Reports of executions, disappearances, and forced army conscription, have been coming from those who have gone to government-held parts of the city.

How many people are there?

It was estimated that around 250,000 people were in east-Aleppo before the recent military campaign. This number is likely higher than the actual number, which was probably more like 150–200,000. Currently, it’s estimated there are between 50–100,000 people still in east-Aleppo.

Who are they?

There are all kinds of people in the east of Aleppo. Some are simply people who didn’t want to leave their homes. Others are teachers, nurses, doctors, journalists, activists, or aid workers, who have remained to look after others, and now fear for their lives if the government forces find them. Some are men avoiding conscription to the Syrian army — many have sent their families to government-held areas, but didn’t want to be forced to fight their own people, so have avoided leaving. There are men, women, children, elderly people, disabled people, people who don’t want to lose their family property. Most are people with nowhere else to go.

Who are the rebels in Aleppo?

It was thought around 10,000 rebel fighters were in and around Aleppo city before the recent Syrian military push. About 800 of those were from the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. The number remaining now, is unknown, but fewer than that.

And the White Helmets, what are they?

The White Helmets are a group of emergency first responders that are trained to pull people out of the rubble after airstrikes. The job has been needed throughout the conflict as barrel bombings have been indiscriminate and often hit civilian targets, they’re also bombs that cause a lot of destruction but frequently leave many people alive or injured under the rubble.

Indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the rebel-held east of Aleppo ramped up in 2014 when barrel bombs, a form of home-made bomb, began to be used extensively in the city and have remained a part of daily life ever since. These attacks caused the population in the east of the city to reduce dramatically between 2013 and the start of the siege.

What does ‘Aleppo falling’ mean?

In this situation, it means the city ‘falling’ out of rebel hands and returning to government control.

What’s the siege all about?

‘Siege and starve’ / ‘submit or die’ strategies have been employed extensively in Syria as away of wresting back control of areas that are under rebel control. The tactics seen in Aleppo right now have used elsewhere in the country.

Across Syria, suburbs are besieged, denied of aid, and in recent months have been forced into ‘truce’ agreements with the government. The truces involve evacuating rebel fighters and their families, and bringing the rest of the area back under government control. Military pressure is often applied to force the truces, for example in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus that was evacuated in August, heavy bombing took out the last hospital just a week before the area was evacuated. People in east-Aleppo see the siege as an extension of this policy.

Image: ICRC

What is the humanitarian situation in Aleppo?

The humanitarian situation in the east of Aleppo has deteriorated throughout the siege, as no aid has been able to get in. Hospitals have routinely been attacked, making access to healthcare difficult. The number of clinics and healthcare workers has dwindled, as have medical supplies.

Food supplies have been reduced throughout the period as well, though starvation isn’t currently an big issue across the board. As areas within the area are taken back by government troops, citizens have fled into the ever-reducing opposition-held area, meaning displacement within the area is getting worse and families are sheltering wherever they can find. The ICRC recently rescued a number of people in extremely bad conditions in an area in the midst of the fighting.

The constant military campaign has made walking in the streets dangerous, people are moving about less, and are increasingly fearful for their lives. Audio and video from the area suggests constant shelling, gunfire, and bombings.

Why are people sending goodbye messages from Aleppo?

Many people in Aleppo fear that they will be targeted by government forces, or security service,s if they flee to the areas in the west that are held by the government. Since the beginning of the conflict, activists, protestors, journalists, aid workers, and those on the wrong side of the government, have been arrested and many have vanished.

The ‘Caesar photos’ showed the kind of torture and brutality that goes on inside Assad’s jails. Many of those who remain in the east, fear that a similar fate will await them if they leave to the west of the city.

With a heavy military campaign, bombs dropping from above, and an ever-decreasing area safe from government (and their allied) forces, people fear their lives are at risk. The messages are a message to the world, hoping it will lead to help arriving.

People have been comparing Aleppo to Srebrenica and Rwanda, why?

Over the course of the Syrian conflict, over 400,000 people have been killed. The executions of civilians leaving Aleppo, and the world’s inaction, is compared to the Rwandan genocide, where the world failed to save 1 million lives. The siege conditions engender comparisons to Srebrenica.

Both are situations where scholars, humanitarians, and politicians, all looked at what had happened later on and said ‘never again‘. For many people, the fact a comparable situation is occurring now, raises the question of what ‘never again’ really means.

What was the evacuation I heard about yesterday?

Yesterday (Tuesday December 13) a ceasefire and evacuation agreement was hammered out between Turkey and Russia, after the rebel groups in Aleppo said they would be willing to leave the city. Aid groups had been pushing to be able to evacuate their workers, medics wanted to evacuate the injured, and media companies wanted to help evacuate their reporters. Civilians wanted to leave the city, to go somewhere they felt safer.

The deal saw fighting stop late on Tuesday and evacuations were supposed to begin in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Many people living in east Aleppo were relieved. They didn’t want to leave, but this offered a way to remain alive, and safe.

Once they had been evacuated, the city would return to government control, and those civilians who chose to stay in their homes could do so.

This kind of arrangement has happened elsewhere in Syria, in similar circumstances, but there are few safety guarantees for those who remain behind.

Why didn’t it happen?

When the now-infamous green buses reached the area, they were apparently turned back by Iranian militias who wanted extra conditions put on the agreement, namely evacuations from two other towns elsewhere in Syria.

Not long after that, the ceasefire fell apart. East Aleppo was shelled, and rockets were fired into areas held by the government. Airstrikes against east Aleppo began again not long after that.

What happens now?

Today, new negotiations have taken place to get the evacuation deal back on track.

The Iranians wanted injured people from Fua and Kafraya evacuated as well. The two towns are besieged by JFS rebel fighters, but the fate of the towns has historically been tied to Madaya and Zabadani, two towns that are besieged by the government. When aid access or medical evacuations happens in one place, they have to happen in the other as well. The agreement has been problematic in many ways, but hasn’t been part of negotiations for Aleppo before.

The Syrian government wanted more involvement in the negotiation. Their main concern seems to have been the number of people who wanted to leave the area, as well as the fact they thought some of those on their arrest lists might leave as well. This reinforces the idea that some of those most worried about their safety would be at risk if they stayed.

Turkey was trying to negotiate for some of the rebels and civilians to leave to northern-Aleppo-countryside, not to Idlib. This also seems to have been a sticking-point in negotiations. Northern Aleppo is where the more moderate groups, aligned with Turkey or the US, are fighting against ISIS.

Allowing rebels and others to leave to Idlib has happened elsewhere in Syria during similar evacuation agreements. From the government’s point of view, they can take back important parts of the country, and then consolidate the opposition in one province. They can then focus on it militarily later on.

Late on Wednesday it looked like an agreement was being reached, a new ceasefire starting, and hope that evacuations would begin again in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Where do people go if they leave Aleppo?

In recent weeks, many of those leaving east-Aleppo have gone to west-Aleppo — the part of the city still under the government’s control. Since the siege began, this is the only place that has been available as an option. For many, this is too risky.

In the evacuation agreement, they will go to neighboring Idlib province, or possibly northern Aleppo province, outside of the city itself.

Why’s everyone talking about Russia, isn’t Aleppo in Syria?

Russia have been helping Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad since early in the conflict. In late 2015, this help extended to active military involvement. Russian airstrikes and military might have been a huge part of the government’s recent military gains.

And Iran, what are they up to?

Iran have been involved in Syria for quite a while too. They’re involved in everything from providing credit lines so the government can buy wheat, to military support.

This is confusing, who else is there?

A lot of people. On the Syrian government’s side, the Lebanese Hezbollah forces are involved, as is Iraqi and Afghani support. On the other side, the Turks are involved in the north, with many outside funders supporting rebel forces. However, financial support has been dwindling for rebel groups across the board, especially for groups that aren’t directly involved in the fight against ISIS as most western countries are mostly focused on that.

Can’t the UN do something?

The Russians support for Assad has meant that they have blocked six UN Security Council resolutions aimed at alleviating the suffering in Aleppo and Syria. At a political level, that makes a big impact. The UNGA has discussed it, but without the UNSC it’s hard for them to act.

Syria isn’t signed up to the International Criminal Court either.

The situation has led to many calls for a change to the UN system to enable action where a UNSC veto-holding member is one of the aggressors in a conflict.

Even at the level of humanitarian aid, the UN has been blocked again and again by the Syrian government and Russia. They have been dependent on diplomatic talks, and begging, to get even the smallest amounts of aid to those who need it.

Or Obama? Is the US even involved any more?

Secretary of State, John Kerry, has remained involved in diplomacy and Syria peace talks. He and the Russian Foreign Minister both serve as co-Chairs of the International Syria Support Group.

That said, the US election means that Obama is now only weeks away from leaving office, and the President Elect has differing views on Syria. The fact that Turkey have been involved in the talks on the Aleppo evacuation indicates that US influence is waning.

American policy on Syria is now focused on fighting ISIS, and then on humanitarian access and a reduction in the violence.

I am crying reading about it, what could I do?

The fact you want to know more, and do more, is great. The most immediate thing you can do is donate to charities that support Syrians. A few great ones are:
Syrian American Medical Society
Karam Foundation
Syrian Civil Defense

If you’re really keen, here’s a longer list, with more ideas.

If this was helpful, and you have further questions about Syria, or Aleppo, that you were too afraid to ask, drop them in the comments and I’ll do a follow up post in a few days. I tweet at @ejbeals.

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