Rebels surrender east Aleppo, evacuations begin

AMMAN: Rebel forces said they are prepared to leave east Aleppo on Thursday as civilians and the wounded depart for opposition-controlled western countryside after months of strangling encirclement and bombardment, local military and civilian sources told Syria Direct.

The first wave of east Aleppans—up to 1,000 people in total—exited the city early Thursday afternoon after a revived ceasefire deal resulted in a day free of airstrikes and shelling by pro-regime forces.

The first wave of evacuations came just hours after sniper fire targeted the regime’s green buses three times Thursday morning as they attempted to leave east Aleppo, killing one person and injuring up to four others, local sources told Syria Direct.

No one claimed responsibility for the gunfire on the buses; however, opposition sources were quick to accuse Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, who they claim are leveraging the Aleppo evacuations in order to secure the departure of hundreds of people from two rebel-encircled Shiite villages in the Idlib countryside.

A previous ceasefire collapsed on Wednesday morning after airstrikes and regime-allied artillery fire on the rebel-controlled east Aleppo enclave prevented medical evacuees from leaving the city.

 Injured east Aleppans leave the city on Thursday. Photo courtesy of the Aleppo Media Center

As of publication, a second wave of wounded east Aleppans and their families are being evacuated. Rebel forces, who have yet to surrender their heavy weaponry, will depart the city on Friday or Saturday, Muhannad Makhzom, spokesman for the Aleppo-based rebel group al-Jabha a-Shamiya, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

Opposition forces “will either leave tomorrow or Saturday, but as of right now, it’s been just civilians,” he added.

Up to 5,000 rebel fighters and their families will be evacuated to the west Aleppo countryside, Russia state news agency TASS reported on Thursday.

Airstrikes appeared to stop on Thursday, one day after US State Department spokesman John Kirby accused Iran of obstructing the first ceasefire deal on Tuesday. Kirby said that Secretary of State John Kerry “will continue diplomatic engagement to try to achieve a better outcome for those people still left in east Aleppo.”

The “end of the siege of Aleppo is not the end of the war in Syria,” Kirby said. In terms of America’s role in the ongoing war in Syria, Syria Direct’s tally of CENTCOM reports indicates that the US military carried out 325 airstrikes in Syria between November 15 and December 14 of this year.

The Shiite factor

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) confirmed their involvement in Thursday’s evacuations to Syria Direct. The SARC official, who asked to remain unnamed, declined to disclose the number of east Aleppo residents to be evacuated in the coming days, adding that no further information will be shared “until the evacuations have been completed in their entirety.”

The SARC official similarly confirmed that their team “is preparing for the evacuation process from al-Fuaa and Kafariya,” the two rebel-encircled Shiite villages in the Idlib countryside.

Al-Fuaa and Kafariya, which are under a blockade identical to the regime’s blockade of countless towns across Syria. Syria Direct reported on Wednesday that Shiite militias had allegedly blocked evacuations from taking place that day by firing upon the buses.

 Civil Defense member Baybars Meshaal (left) injured in east Aleppo on Thursday. Photo courtesy of FSA News

On Thursday, pro-opposition sources accused Iranian-backed militias of spoiling the Wednesday ceasefire in order to renegotiate the east Aleppo rebel surrender and secure the evacuation of hundreds of residents or more from al-Fuaa and Kafariya.

More than two dozen buses are currently parked in regime-controlled Hama province, near the border of rebel-held Idlib provinces, waiting to cross to pick up the evacuees.

The buses “have been parked at the regime side of the checkpoint all day long,” a security official on the opposition side of the checkpoint told Syria Direct on Thursday.

“If anyone is getting out of al-Fuaa and Kafariya then they’ll have to pass through here, but as of now, we haven’t seen any movement.”

“Nobody has told us anything about an evacuation, not the opposition, not the regime, nobody.”

Additional reporting: Jessica Page

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.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

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.

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.