Ceasefire falls apart as artillery, airstrikes rock east Aleppo

AMMAN: The Turkish-Russian ceasefire for rebel-held east Aleppo fell apart in the hours after the agreement, with medical evacuees turned back from leaving Wednesday morning at dawn and ongoing airstrikes and regime-allied shelling of the pocket of territory still under rebel control.

The first group of evacuees was to be the injured, an estimated 700 of whom were boarding the regime’s green buses early Wednesday morning when gunfire targeted the buses, local military and civilian sources inside the encircled districts told Syria Direct.

The buses were turned back, and the injured were not permitted to leave Wednesday morning. The second group of evacuees on Wednesday was to be rebels and their families, who agreed to withdraw from their east Aleppo enclave in exchange for turning over heavy weaponry.

No one claimed the gunfire on the buses, but rebels were quick to accuse Iranian-backed militias who they say oppose the ceasefire. Russia and pro-Syrian regime media accused “the jihadist rebels” of disrupting the evacuations.

Iranian militias “refused to allow the passage of the injured and their families” from the encircled neighborhoods, rebel and civilian sources told Syria Direct.

 Streets of east Aleppo on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Aleppo Today.

The Iranians “sent us a threatening message that they’ll burn us alive and would never let us leave,” Muhannad Makhzom, spokesman for the Aleppo-based rebel group al-Jabha a-Shamiya, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “But if things keep going like this, we’ll keep fighting and we won’t surrender.”

A few hours after the buses were turned back, Shiite militias reportedly attempted to storm the roughly 3 square kilometer pocket still under rebel control, as airstrikes repeatedly hit residential buildings and other sites within east Aleppo.

Near-constant tank shells, artillery fire and airstrikes continue to pummel the east Aleppo pocket as of publication, sources on the ground told Syria Direct.

“Civilians [trapped in east Aleppo] are going out of their minds,” Ibrahim al-Haj, spokesman for the Aleppo Civil Defense, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “They’re pissed that the ceasefire agreement is already collapsing and that this siege is still ongoing.”

 Pro-regime forces in recently captured east Aleppo territory on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Aleppo Now.

Both opposition and regime media announced a joint Turkish-Russian ceasefire Tuesday evening that reportedly stipulated the departure of armed rebels and their families, with the first wave of medical evacuations initially slated to begin around 5:00am Wednesday morning. If successful, the deal would mark the Assad regime’s complete recapture of Syria’s second city—the nation’s pre-war industrial capital—for the first time since rebels took east Aleppo in 2012.

Amidst heavy fire threatening the total collapse of the ceasefire, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared to question the legitimacy of the agreement on Wednesday, claiming that rebel forces exploited the deal in order to “take breath, reinforce themselves and get new weapons and ammunition,” Russian state news agency TASS reported.

“The terrorists were rolled back,” TASS added on Wednesday. “The Syrian army went ahead with the operation to retake eastern Aleppo’s quarters from the militants.”

Syrian state media has not commented on the ceasefire.

Fighting temporarily subsided for approximately 20 minutes around 2:00pm local time as talks reportedly resumed between rebel negotiators and their Russian counterparts, al-Jabha a-Shamiya spokesman Muhannad Makhzoum told Syria Direct.

“The pause was short-lived,” the rebel spokesman added. “The bombing has just now returned and we’re right back where we were.”

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

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.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.