AMMAN: Residents of regime-held west Aleppo fled the city’s southwestern districts for the fourth straight day on Monday amidst a stalemated rebel offensive to break the siege of the city’s encircled eastern half.
While little ground changed hands on Monday, sources on the ground in regime-held west Aleppo tell Syria Direct that frontline districts are now near empty with residents fleeing the crossfire of rebel and regime shelling.
Some areas in west Aleppo “have become virtually empty,” Hamdaniyah-based citizen journalist Qais al-Hamdani told Syria Direct on Monday, due to what he called “major displacement along the frontlines.” As of Monday, the Hamdaniyah district is roughly 75 percent empty, al-Hamdani said, “while deeper into the district, only about 20 percent of the people have left.”
The scale of the fighting has driven away residents who had stayed to protect their homes from possible looting and takeover, says a second citizen journalist in Hamdaniyah.
“Given these clashes, there’s just no way that anyone can actually live here,” citizen journalist Alaa al-Halabi told Syria Direct on Monday.
“Of course people are leaving to head deeper into Aleppo city.”
Last Friday, a rebel coalition of roughly 20 factions launched a massive campaign on both east and west Aleppo city from the province’s western countryside. The offensive, rebels say, aims to lift the siege of east Aleppo’s 250,000 residents and, ultimately, “liberate” the entire city, Syria Direct reported.
Rebel tanks advance on west Aleppo. Photo courtesy of Victory Army News.
The rebel campaign, dubbed “the Epic Battle for Aleppo,” is similar to an offensive the rebel Victory Army undertook in August to break through a weak link along the southwest Aleppo city perimeter. It is along that frontline that Hamdaniyah sits, Syria Direct reported. Although Syrian rebels briefly broke the regime’s encirclement of east Aleppo’s 250,000 residents in August, government forces quickly reestablished control.
Amidst ongoing battles, water cutoffs and electricity shortages in August, thousands of Hamdaniyah residents fled deeper into the capital and away from the frontlines, pinched between rebel-regime clashes.
On Monday, west Aleppo residents were once again caught on the frontlines of a rebel offensive, weighing the options of staying or leaving and finding disadvantages in both.
“With the rebels marching in, people fear that the regime and Russian warplanes will now bomb these areas,” said Alaa al-Halabi.
People have stayed in regime-held areas throughout the war “because they have their homes to protect,” said citizen journalist al-Hamdani. “They know that if they leave, the shabiha will take everything that they own.”
In 2015, reports emerged of pro-regime militias intentionally spreading rumors of rebel advances in order to loot the homes of fleeing families in the al-Khalidiye district, also in west Aleppo.
Estimates of civilian casualties from the past four days of west Aleppo clashes vary, with the General Command of the Syrian Army and Armed Forces claiming that as many as 84 people “mostly women and children” have died since the start of the campaign.
“Terrorist organizations fired more than 100 mortar rounds, 50 Grad missiles, and 20 weaponized gas cylinders on residential areas in Aleppo,” the General Command said through SANA on Monday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sharply denounced the rebel offensive on Monday at a press conference in Moscow: “The US and its allies are either unable or unwilling to separate the moderate opposition from [Jabhat] a-Nusra, and now it seems that they actually don’t want to do this.”
On Sunday, the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, released a statement saying he is “appalled and shocked” by the rebel offensive on west Aleppo’s civilian suburbs.
“Those who argue that this is meant to relieve the siege of eastern Aleppo should be reminded that nothing justifies the use of disproportionate and indiscriminate weapons, including heavy ones, on civilian areas,” de Mistura said. “It could amount to war crimes.”
De Mistura’s statement follows an earlier condemnation by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Friday of an attack on a school in west Aleppo that killed a number of children.
“Those responsible for these acts must be brought to justice,” a spokesman for the Secretary-General said in the statement. “Such attacks, if deliberate, may amount to war crimes.”
Was gas used?
Syrian state media reported on Sunday that rebels used poisonous gas on the Hamdaniyah district, a claim the rebels deny.
“Terrorist organizations shelled residential areas in the Assad and Hamdaniyah districts Sunday morning with poisonous gas, resulting in 35 injuries from suffocation,” SANA reported on Sunday.
Pro-opposition media denied the reports of a rebel gas attack, saying that government helicopters had dropped chlorine-filled barrels on two other towns in the west Aleppo countryside.
Inside west Aleppo, the three separate residents interviewed by Syria Direct for this report said that the regime was clearly behind the purported gas attack.
“We saw the helicopters drop gas on us,” a resident of regime-controlled a-Zahraa district told Syria Direct under the pseudonym of Joud. “However, no one—not a regime supporter and certainly not a dissident—will dare accuse the regime of this out of fear of being arrested.”
“With everything going on in west Aleppo today, you’ll be labeled a terrorist immediately if you utter a single word out of line.”