After years of fighting, the Syrian government claimed victory on Tuesday over rebel groups holding out in the besieged city of Aleppo. Reports of a ceasefire were confirmed by Russia’s envoy to the United Nations, stating that fighting would cease Tuesday evening to allow fighters that remain in rebel controlled regions of the city to leave for opposition held regions of the country to the west.
“My latest information is that they indeed have an arrangement achieved on the ground that the fighters are going to leave the city,” Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters. It could happen “within hours maybe,” he said.
Fierce fighting between the Russian-backed Syrian government and various opposition groups that include American-backed rebels as well as jihadist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS have been ongoing since 2011, when pro-democracy protests erupted all over the nation after the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers that painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. Security forces opened fire on demonstrators during the protests, prompting some to take up arms themselves. What followed was a spiral into civil war that ultimately began involving other regional and world powers such as the United States and Russia.
Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, utilized a coalition of the Syrian army, Russian air strikes and Iran-backed militias to lay siege to rebel strongholds in Aleppo for months now. Forcing the rebels from Aleppo represents the largest victory for the Syrian government thus far in the four years of fighting.
However, an end to the fighting in Aleppo does not indicate an end to violence in the region. “The crushing of Aleppo, the immeasurably terrifying toll on its people, the bloodshed, the wanton slaughter of men, women and children, the destruction – and we are nowhere near the end of this cruel conflict,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement.
Nearly simultaneous to the reports of an end to the fighting within the city of Aleppo came additional reports of government forces executing civilians in the streets as well as inside their own homes as they reclaim portions of the city that were formerly under rebel control. The United Nations has received reports of at least eighty-two civilians, including eleven women and thirteen children, being gunned down by pro-government forces as they attempt to flee the city.
“The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes,” said Rupert Colville, a UN Spokesman. “There could be many more.”
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein and Colville both called for the Syrian government to permit third party monitoring of the situation in order to alleviate concerns about human rights violations in the region.
“The only way to alleviate the deep foreboding and suspicion that massive crimes may be under way both within Aleppo, and in relation to some of those who fled or were captured, whether fighters or civilians, is for there to be monitoring by external bodies, such as the U.N.,” said Colville. “It needs international eyes on the situation if the fears of the worst kinds of things happening – summary executions, torture, etc – are to be allayed,” he told reporters.
The Russian envoy to the UN, Churkin, claimed that while rebel fighters would be permitted to flee the city under the ceasefire, civilians would not be included in the agreement, citing the Syrian government’s new control of the region and saying there is no need for civilians to feel the need to leave. “Nobody is going to harm the civilians,” he said.
Some civilians claim that they had chosen to remain in rebel controlled portions of the city precisely because of their fears of what the Syrian government may do to them. Many have claimed that the government has threatened them with prison or torture for providing medical care to rebel fighters or for speaking to foreign journalists.
“Civilians have paid a brutal price during this conflict, and we are filled with the deepest foreboding for those who remain in this last hellish corner of opposition-held eastern Aleppo,” Colville said to the New York Times.
Jan Egeland, the United Nations humanitarian adviser for Syria, claimed that the governments of Russia and Syria were “accountable for any and all atrocities that the victorious militias in Aleppo are now committing.”
A UN Security Council meeting convened at 12pm on Tuesday after urging from the United Kingdom and France. France pushed for an investigation into any possible war crimes or crimes against humanity that were occurring in Syria. “We have collectively failed the people of Syria,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, pulled no punches when addressing Syria, Russia and Iran about the loss of life in Aleppo, “Are you truly incapable of shame? And is there nothing you will not lie about? Your barrel bombs and airstrikes … it is your noose,” she said. “Three member states of the UN contributing to a noose around civilians.”
Whether or not the Syrian government will permit the United Nations or another third-party such as the Red Cross into Aleppo to oversee evacuations is yet to be announced. Rebel fighters may begin leaving the city as early as Tuesday evening, with the fate of rebel-friendly civilians in the area still uncertain.
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