Residents of eastern Aleppo had their hopes of escape dashed Wednesday morning after a cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey fell apart less than 24 hours after it was announced.
Heavy shelling and airstrikes Wednesday morning prevented any evacuations from taking place, according to residents on the ground and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Each side blamed the other for the immediate return to fighting — Turkey cited additional demands coming from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army and its supporting Iran-backed militias as the key blocker to the cease-fire, while Russia said rebels were the instigators.
“The warplanes have just started shelling with cluster bombs,” tweeted Zouhir Al Shimale, a freelance journalist in the east of the city.
The deal was meant to allow for the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents in the last sliver of remaining rebel-held territory, as Assad’s allied forces inch closer to their decisive, and once unthinkable, victory in the brutal four-year battle for the city.
An agreement was reached Tuesday night, just as those trapped inside were sending their last goodbyes and as reports of executions and atrocities streamed in, with the U.N. saying it had credible reports that 82 civilians had been killed.
Under the deal’s terms, civilians, and then rebels from the east of the city were to be evacuated to opposition-held areas in northern Syria. But hours after the evacuations were set to begin, buses intended to transport the injured and their family members remained empty, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Both sides remain engaged in intense fighting inside the city.
Who’s to blame?
Reuters reported early Wednesday that evacuation plans broke down because of objections from Iran, an instrumental ally to Assad, which is seeking a simultaneous evacuation of their injured from two pro-government villages, Foua and Kefraya, that are currently besieged by rebels. The villages in northern Idlib province, besieged since last year, have been the subject of previous tit-for-tat humanitarian deals made between the government and rebel groups.
Turkish state media reported that hundreds of eastern Aleppo residents were being held at a checkpoint run by an Iranian militia Wednesday. And Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu explicitly blamed Syria and its allies for trying to derail the deal, but said that discussions with Russia and Iran would continue in the hope of salvaging the cease-fire.
“There is an agreement here, and this must… be implemented,” he told reporters. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will speak to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin Wednesday evening to try to salvage the deal, Turkish state media reported.
Russia blamed rebels for breaking the truce, saying Syrian government troops fired back in response. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that he expected the situation would be resolved in coming days. “We think the resistance of armed groups will end in two to three days,” he said. Russia claims that tens of thousands of civilians have already fled through humanitarian corridors.
The confused wrangling over the cease-fire came after the U.N. warned of horrific scenes of slaughter as pro-government forces entered rebel-held neighborhoods in the northern Syrian city, which has seen some of the most ferocious battles in the country’s five-year civil war since rebel groups seized territory in 2012.
“The crushing of Aleppo”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said Tuesday night that his agency had credible reports that scores of civilians in rebel-held neighborhoods had been killed by pro-government forces, with pro-Assad forces reportedly entering homes to carry out summary executions. Dozens of dead bodies reportedly littered the streets of east Aleppo neighborhoods, with residents unable to retrieve them.
“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,” said Al Hussein.
Activist Ismail Alabdullah from the Syrian Civil Defense, the medical response group known as the White Helmets, recorded a despondent video in the early hours of Wednesday as Assad’s forces closed in.
“This time maybe is the last time that I talk to you from Aleppo,” he said.