Civilians increasingly cornered amid ongoing rebel losses in east Aleppo, ‘stranglehold getting tighter’

AMMAN: Rebels lost yet more of their territory in east Aleppo on Wednesday including most of the Old City and several additional eastern districts as their calls for a mass civilian evacuation went unanswered by Russian and Syrian regime authorities, local sources told Syria Direct.

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allied militias entered the eastern half of Aleppo’s Old City on Tuesday night for the first time since rebel forces took control of it in 2012. With Wednesday’s advance, the Assad regime now holds up to 75 percent of east Aleppo amidst a three-week Syrian regime and Russian campaign to wrest control of Syria’s second city from opposition forces.

While rebel sources on the frontlines claim that “territory is constantly shifting between rebel and regime control,” the SAA demonstrated over the last three weeks that they are not relinquishing newly acquired territory.

The regime’s ongoing campaign to retake Aleppo relies heavily on hundreds of targeted airstrikes from Syrian and Russian warplanes to pave the way for ground advances. Once the SAA and its loyalist foreign militias breached the opposition’s well-fortified perimeter of east Aleppo city two weeks ago, rebel forces have been in a state of all-out retreat in the face of superior regime firepower, airpower and manpower. 

The regime’s campaign to retake Aleppo “relies on dividing the encircled districts into smaller and smaller sections,” Captain Abdelsalam Abdelrazaq, spokesman for the east Aleppo rebel brigade Nour e-Din a-Zinki, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “As the regime continues to chip away at free Aleppo, their stranglehold of a siege continues to get tighter and tighter.”

Munitions-poor rebel forces are unable to stanch the hemorrhaging of territory, now reduced to a small 16 square kilometer area of control after ceding more than 26 districts to the regime in recent days.

With the battle for Aleppo taking the form of bloody, street-to-street urban warfare, photos from the fronts bear grisly images of civilian casualties lining the streets.

“The dead are everywhere,” Ibrahim al-Haj, spokesman for the Aleppo Civil Defense, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “There are dozens of bodies lying on the streets, buried under the rubble and even more now behind enemy lines.”

He adds, “Simply put, we’ve lost track.”

Al-Haj says he is not optimistic moving forward. “There’s no doubt about it that the death tolls will continue to rise,” he tells Syria Direct. “Such is what happens when the regime advances and encircles civilians into fewer and fewer districts.”

On Wednesday, Syria’s rebel groups collectively published an online proposal calling for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire” as rapid regime advances close in on the city’s estimated population of 200,000 residents.

In addition to a five-day cessation of hostilities, the statement demanded the evacuation of the city’s injured and the unobstructed movement of east Aleppo residents seeking to evacuate in the direction of the rebel-held north Aleppo countryside.

“East Aleppo’s rebel factions all came together to agree on this initiative for the safety and well-being of this city’s women, children and injured,” Nour e-Din a-Zinki’s Captain Abdelrazaq told Syria Direct. “It’s a proposal to save people from certain death.”

Abdelrazaq told Syria Direct that the rebel coalition has not yet heard a response from the Syrian regime or from Russia. 

On Tuesday, regime shelling of east Aleppo reportedly killed more than 45 people, Yehia Abu Maher, a first responder with the local Civil Defense, told Syria Direct.

“We’ve been completely paralyzed by this bombing campaign,” Abu Maher told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “People keep fleeing each and every day, and it seems that this will go on until there’s a surrender.”

He added, “God only knows what tomorrow will bring.”

On Wednesday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry and their German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Hamburg later this week to address the situation in Aleppo.

 Transporting the injured in east Aleppo via wheelchair on December 1. Photo courtesy of the Aleppo Media Center.

On Tuesday, the Russian foreign minister warned that anybody “who refuses to leave [Aleppo] on good terms will be eliminated,” the pro-Russian news outlet Sputnik reported.

“There is no other way out,” he added.

On Monday, Russia and China vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution, which called for a seven-day ceasefire in Aleppo in order to facilitate the delivery of critical food and medical supplies, which have not entered the city’s eastern half since September.

Monday’s vote marked Russia’s sixth veto of a Syria-focused resolution since 2011.

With thousands of east Aleppo residents fleeing the bombed-out city amidst daily regime advances, the east Aleppo’s Civil Defense has not yet decided whether they will be staying.

“That decision hasn’t yet been made,” Aleppo Civil Defense spokesman al-Haj told Syria Direct.

“Ultimately, our fate is tied to this city’s civilians: If they go, we go.”

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.

Razan Yasin

Razan is from Douma in East Ghouta. She holds a degree in pharmacy from the Islamic Society College. She wants to write about Syrians’ daily life during wartime.

Celien Baker

Originally from Aleppo, Celien grew up in Amman and used to visit Syria every summer. She has volunteered with several local Syrian-run NGOs in Jordan.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.

Malek Hafez

Malek is originally from Damascus and moved to Jordan in 2013. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Middle East University in Jordan.