East Aleppans after the ceasefire: ‘It’s not about aid convoys…we want the siege to be lifted’

At 11:59pm Sunday, the seven-day ceasefire covering most of Syria ended.

Airstrikes resumed in east Aleppo in the waning hours of the ceasefire Sunday evening, killing one woman in the city’s residential Karam al-Jabal neighborhood, and picked up a heavy pace on Monday.  

On the same day, in encircled east Aleppo, an estimated 275,000 residents awaited an aid delivery stipulated by the ceasefire agreement. As of Monday, two convoys of 20 trucks each remained on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, where they have been for nearly a week.

A predictable game of blame has ensued, with no party willing to take responsibility for blocking the aid. The regime blames the rebels, and the United Nations asserts that neither side has made the necessary assurances to guarantee safe passage of the aid convoys.  

“I am pained and disappointed that a United Nations convoy has yet to cross into Syria from Turkey, and safely reach eastern Aleppo,” Stephen O'Brien, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said in a statement on Monday.

The delay is coming from the Syrian regime, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said in a press conference from Geneva last Thursday.

“The [Syrian] government, I repeat, the government, was expected to provide facilitation letters…[they] have not been received,” de Mistura said, adding that “the UN is ready to go.”

But five Syrians, from behind the east Aleppo blockade, told Syria Direct that the conversation they want to participate in is about lifting the siege altogether, rather than the scheduling of aid convoys.

 Airstrike hits east Aleppo’s Karam al-Jabal neighborhood Sunday evening. Photo courtesy of the Aleppo Media Center.

“Here’s the thing: We don’t want the conversation to be about food,” Omar Arab, an east Aleppo citizen journalist, tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani. “This was never about a one-off food delivery. It’s about lifting the siege of this city.”

“We don’t want to just be given a handful of rice and bulgur,” Hanaa al-Qassab, president of the Aleppo-based Syrian Women’s Association, tells Syria Direct.

“We want a permanent corridor for food to come in and for the sick to receive the medical care that they need.”

An embedded journalist with Ahrar a-Sham spoke with Syria Direct on condition of anonymity from the frontlines of the Aleppo fighting.

Q: Would you consider the ceasefire to have been a success, even a marginal one?

Many of the armed groups came together to publish a statement regarding their collective stance on the ceasefire. Their position was clear: The sponsors of the deal were unable to effectively control the ceasefire.

Furthermore, the regime didn’t abide by the agreed-upon conditions. The regime’s violations started as early as the second day when their forces launched an attack in south Aleppo in an attempt to further their interests and their positions in the ongoing battles. The rebels attempted to repel this advance.

With regard to aid reaching Aleppo, Ahrar a-Sham welcomes its entry. These are our people who are encircled in Aleppo, and Aleppo has a duty to ensure that they are taken care of. That being said, Ahrar a-Sham opposes linking aid delivery to forced displacement and starvation policies, which is exactly what the ceasefire attempted to do.

**

Omar al-Abasi is the spokesman for the Aleppo Local Council, the civilian governing body of the city's rebel-held east, which oversees humanitarian, medical and municipal services.

Q: The seven-day window for aid getting into Aleppo under the terms of the ceasefire have come and gone. What are your thoughts?

The Local Council has done everything to abide by the agreed-upon conditions for the entry of aid, but still nothing has made its way into the city. No one has been in contact with us, and still here we are without the fuel, wheat, flour and medicine that we were promised.

We don’t imagine that aid will be coming because the regime is giving the excuse of a lack of trust in the Turkish government.

We’re working with OCHA, and the sealed aid shipments —which are supervised by the Turkish government—are supposed to get to rebel-held areas without ever being opened en route. Unfortunately, we don’t have confidence that the regime will allow this to happen.

 UN aid convoys to Aleppo waiting at the Turkey-Syria border on Monday. Photo courtesy of OCHA Syria.

Q: Would you consider the ceasefire to have been a success, even a marginal one?

The bombing has definitely subsided compared to before the ceasefire. That being said, it’s possible that this situation can explode at any second, especially with Russian and regime forces stationed along the Castello Road.

**

Hanaa al-Qassab is the president of the Aleppo-based Syrian Women’s Association.

Q: The seven-day window for aid getting into Aleppo under the terms of the ceasefire have come and gone. What are your thoughts?

I don’t imagine that aid will ever be getting in if the opposition’s conditions aren’t met, and it’s clear that they won’t be.

We want the siege to be lifted. We want a permanent corridor for food to come in and for the sick to receive the medical care that they need. We don’t want to just be given a handful of rice and bulgur.

We’ll buy what we need from the labor of our work and the sweat of our brow. We don’t want to be given handouts; we want the siege to be lifted.

Q: Would you consider the ceasefire to have been a success, even a marginal one?

The bombing has definitely lightened even though there have certainly been clashes across the countryside. But the fact of the matter is that most people in Aleppo are against the ceasefire because it serves the interest of the regime. It’s an opportunity for them to do some maintenance on their tanks and warplanes, which will come back to bomb defenseless people on another day.

So, we don’t have faith in the regime, and we don’t consider the ceasefire to have been a success. We’d prefer death to this humiliation. Now that the ceasefire has ended, we’re optimistic that our rebels will be able to lift the siege once again.

Yes, things are tough, near dire, inside Aleppo. Our most basic resources—namely vegetables and fuel—have run out, but we’ll remain steadfast in our determination, and we’ll live with dignity or otherwise die trying.

Omar Arab is a citizen journalist inside regime-encircled east Aleppo.

Q: The seven-day window for aid getting into Aleppo under the terms of the ceasefire have come and gone. What are your thoughts?

I don’t imagine that aid will ever be getting in here.

The people of Aleppo don’t want aid to enter the city through Castello Road, and certainly not on the regime’s terms. When the rebels controlled Ramouseh, the people demanded that aid get into the city that way. [Ed. Rebel forces temporarily lifted the blockade of the city's east in early August after capturing the southwestern Ramouseh neighborhood, opening a supply route to the rebel-controlled Aleppo countryside. However, regime forces regained control of the district about one month later, once again reinstating the complete encirclement of the city's rebel-held eastern half.]

The UN didn’t listen. And now that the regime has once again taken over this entry into east Aleppo, they get to set the terms on how aid either does or doesn’t make it into the city.

Here’s the thing, we don’t want the conversation to be about food. We don’t want it to be about an aid delivery. This was never about a one-off food delivery. It’s about lifting the siege of this city.

The Local Council’s conditions for getting aid into Aleppo aren’t being met, and that is why we’ll continue to object to the aid deliveries. Despite our daily suffering, we all believe—civilians and militants alike—that we can lift this siege by ourselves.

Q: What is happening on the ground today? Given that no aid made it into the city, which items are in the shortest supply?

There’s a major fuel shortage, which has meant that virtually every major job has had to come to a standstill because our electricity generators just aren’t able to run.

Fortunately, our hospitals and ambulances do have a decent stockpile of fuel and have been able to maintain operations.

Q: Would you consider the ceasefire to have been a success, even a marginal one?

Before the ceasefire, we were getting bombed on a daily basis, dozens of airstrikes each and every day. And so from a humanitarian perspective, do I consider the ceasefire to have been a success? Yes, I do. The bombings have lessened, though certainly haven’t gone away altogether. But that specter of death that once loomed ever-present in Aleppo has—even if only briefly—gone away.

[Ed.: Syria Direct spoke with Omar Arab on Monday morning before the Syrian army’s General Command announced the official end of the ceasefire agreement. At the time of publication, east Aleppo residents reported that regime warplanes were once again conducting airstrikes over the city.]

However, from a political perspective, the regime is the real victor here. For them, it’s been an opportunity to regroup and prepare attacks on key rebel military sites. Ultimately, it’s served as a means of applying political pressure on the opposition to surrender, just like what happened along Castello.

It’s so unfortunate that this pressure falls first and foremost on the civilians and not on those who are fighting.

The people of Aleppo have refused aid. No other besieged city has ever done such a thing.

**

Zaher al-Zaher is a citizen journalist inside regime-encircled east Aleppo

Q: The seven-day window for aid getting into Aleppo under the terms of the ceasefire have come and gone. What are your thoughts?

I don’t expect that aid will be getting in. The regime wants it to happen on their road and under their conditions, and this certainly will not be accepted.

Are people afraid in Aleppo? Yes, there’s no denying that fears of impending hunger and even starvation are starting to spread. Despite these concerns, the people of Aleppo would still prefer to refuse aid than to acquiesce to the regime’s terms. 

Since day one, the regime has violated the ceasefire. True, the bombings have lessened, but they haven’t gone away. And frankly, I don’t think that the people have benefitted that much from it at all.

The ceasefire ended last night, and even before then, the warplanes rattled off five airstrikes across neighborhoods of east Aleppo. It’s gotten to the point where we weren’t even surprised that it had happened. 

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani is from Latakia province. She studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor in Syria. She has worked at Syria Direct since 2015 and was named the 2018 Middle East and North Africa Laureate for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers' (WAN-IFRA) Women in News Editorial Leadership Award.

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.