As 2 more districts fall to regime, noose tightens around east Aleppo’s 300,000 residents

Assad regime drops pamphlets telling east Aleppans they can leave; residents cite “publicity stunt” as diapers and toothbrushes rain from the sky.

AMMAN: Rebel forces lost two strategic districts along the last access road into opposition-held east Aleppo city, tightening the regime’s now-total encirclement of Syria’s largest urban center as local residents said on Thursday they fear “the worst is yet to come.”

Regime forces strengthened their hold over the Castello Road by driving rebel fighters out of the Beni Zeid district, which lies alongside Castello, and, up until Wednesday, was part of rebel-held east Aleppo. 

Also on Wednesday, a concurrent YPG assault and victory over a second rebel-held district adjacent to Beni Zeid contributed to the regime’s ability to break through the opposition’s ranks.

“Beni Zeid did not fall overnight,” Abu Teem al-Halabi, an Aleppo-based citizen journalist told Syria Direct on Thursday. “The regime tried to capture this district at least 20 times to no avail, but a combination of Russian air support…and YPG advances contributed to this result.”

While the YPG and Syrian regime forces launched an offensive on the same day against two adjoining rebel-held districts, it was not immediately clear to what extent, if at all, the two parties coordinated the campaign.

On Tuesday, regime forces moved from “fire cutting” Castello, or holding the road through extreme bombardment, to physically controlling a section of the road, which previously facilitated the movement of food, medicine and other supplies to east Aleppo city’s nearly 300,000 residents.

On July 8, regime forces—backed by Iranian militias and Russian air cover—captured several positions overlooking Castello Road. A barrage of, on average, “150 strikes per day—including airstrikes, barrel bombs and artillery rounds” rendered the route inaccessible, a volunteer with the Syrian Civil Defense in east Aleppo told Syria Direct earlier this month.

 Syrian rebels fire mortars near the Castello Road earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Ammar al-Halabi.

“The regime taking control of Castello is a disaster for the people of Aleppo,” Ammar al-Halabi, an embedded reporter with rebel brigades witnessing the battle for the access road, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “There’s no longer anywhere to move the wounded outside of Aleppo or to bring anything to the city.”

“This tragedy will impact the people of Aleppo—our family and relatives—in every aspect of life,” he added.

Beni Zeid’s civilians long-since fled after repeated Kurdish attempts to overtake the city, Milad Shahabi, an east Aleppo-based citizen journalist told Syria Direct on Thursday.

“There was really no one inside Beni Zeid except for a few rebels,” he added.

While rebel fighters reportedly withdrew from Beni Zeid before the regime’s offensive, avoiding heavy losses, the territorial concession makes it even less likely that rebels will reopen the Castello Road.   

Castello “has been completely destroyed as a result of heavy air raids and violent artillery bombardment,” embedded journalist al-Halabi told Syria Direct. “There’s not a single meter without a shell or a rocket in it. It’s totally impassable.”

‘Their propaganda efforts are laughable’

Earlier this month, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned that in the event of a total blockade of rebel-held Aleppo city, the UN and its partners in the area only “have enough food supplies for 145,000 [civilians] for one month” out of the total city’s population.

On Thursday, the Syrian regime launched a campaign dropping leaflets into east Aleppo, claiming safe passage out of the 62 encircled districts, a move that local residents called an attempt to “pull the wool over the eyes of the international community.”

Helicopters dropped pamphlets over east Aleppo city—one day after at least seven airstrikes—advertising four “safe passages” for any east Aleppo resident looking to leave. Three lead in the direction of the regime-controlled portion of the provincial capital and one towards the regime-held southern countryside.

Several sources on the ground told Syria Direct that not one of the four proposed passages is in fact open.

 A pack of sugar, a single teabag and a small plastic pack of jelly; part of an aid parcel dropped over east Aleppo city. Photo courtesy of Twitter user NorthernStork.

“It’s a publicity stunt, and, frankly, their propaganda efforts are laughable,” east-Aleppo-based journalist Milad Shahabi told Syria Direct on Thursday. “Those border crossings are totally non-existent.”

“We’ll never leave our city, no matter the dozens of airstrikes nor the continuous bombings that we face,” Murad al-Halabi, an Aleppo resident in the Saladin district, told Syria Direct’s partner website The Syrian Voice.

Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s permanent representative to the United Nations, submitted a letter to the Security Council on Tuesday, noting the regime’s “care about the safety and security of the civilians [of Aleppo].”

“The Syrian government assured the civilians in those areas its keenness to provide them with their livelihood needs,” he added.

Along with the pamphlets, Syrian and Russian helicopters reportedly dropped 1,000 aid parcels over neighborhoods of east Aleppo city.

“One aid parcel fell on my roof,” Murad al-Halabi, “It was a small, 200-gram plastic bag with a little packet of jelly, a toothbrush, a single diaper, one canned good, one bag of tea and a single packet of sugar.”

Several Aleppo residents called the food delivery and promises of safe passage “laughable” in interviews with Syria Direct and The Syrian Voice.

“The Assad regime and Russia are mocking the people of Aleppo, and they’re looking for propaganda material, hoping that the international community will overlook the destruction and killing that they’ve committed,” said east Aleppo resident Murad al-Halabi.  

Some residents burned the aid packages out of fear that they were poisoned, Wasim al-Khatib, another Saladin district resident told The Syrian Voice.

“These are the same people who used phosphorus bombs and chemical weapons on Syrians with total disregard for the presence of children and unarmed civilians in their line of fire.”

Russian and regime efforts to downplay the tightening encirclement of east Aleppo represent “little more than an attempt to pull the over the eyes of the international community,” east Aleppo-based human rights activist Mohammed al-Mohammed told the Syrian Voice.

“It portends that the worst is still to come.”

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Mahran Mohammed

Mahran holds a degree in Arabic literature from Damascus university. Originally from Daraa province, he was involved in the earliest peaceful demonstrations of the Syrian revolt revolt. In 2013, Mahran was injured in a regime attack and moved to Jordan. Mahran previously volunteered with Save the Children.

Omar al-Khatib

Omar was an information technology student in Damascus when the revolution began. He was forced to discontinue his studies in 2013 and moved to Jordan. Omar received an online diploma in Political Science from Asia University. Omar worked also as a freelance interpreter for scholars conducting research in Jordan.