RFL/RE – The Syrian Army said it has taken complete control of Aleppo after evacuating the last rebel fighters from the battered city on December 22, handing President Bashar al-Assad his most important gain in the nearly six-year civil war.
Assad and his forces proclaimed “an important turning point” and credited allies Russia and Iran for helping to make it possible. Russia’s air force conducted hundreds of raids over the city while thousands of Iranian-backed militia fighters joined the battle.
In the western part of the city, controlled by the government throughout the war, witnesses reported celebratory gunfire, fireworks, and street parties into the night. Crowds sang, danced, and waved flags and pictures of Assad.
Opposition leaders acknowledged a “great loss” for their rebellion against Assad, with Ahmed Qorra Ali, an official with the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, saying that “Aleppo is now under the occupation of Russia and Iran.”
Ahmad al-Khatib, an opposition media activist, said the fall of Aleppo was a date “we’ll never forget and we will never forgive.”
“Let the world bear witness that Bashar al-Assad has killed and displaced and destroyed Aleppo, and he celebrates his victory over the blood and offspring of Aleppo,” Khatib said.
An estimated 300,000 people have been killed in the war in Syria, which began with a government crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011.
The recapture of Aleppo gives the government a significant strategic advantage, putting it in control of the country’s five main cities: Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Damascus, and Latakia.
Syrian state television, rebel groups, and the International Red Cross said the last group of rebels and their families holed up in a small eastern enclave of Aleppo were evacuated under a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey that gave the army and its allies full control of the city.
At least 34,000 people, including more than 4,000 rebel fighters, were evacuated from east Aleppo in a weeklong operation hampered by severe winter weather. Rebels once held nearly half the city.
While the Red Cross said all people who wished to leave had been evacuated, the United Nations said thousands more may still wish to go in the coming days and should be allowed to do so.
“The process for evacuation was traumatic, with crowding, and vulnerable people waiting for hours and exposed to sub-zero temperatures,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters in New York.
In parallel with the Aleppo evacuation, two buses carrying people from the pro-government villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, besieged by rebels in Idlib Province, arrived in Aleppo.
A total of 900 people were transferred from the villages to government-held parts of Aleppo during the weeklong evacuation process, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the war.
Government forces had insisted the two villages be included in the deal to bring people out of Aleppo.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said that while the Syrian Army can boast of retaking Aleppo, “they are also responsible for the devastation and the havoc and the starvation and atrocities they caused in the taking of Aleppo.”
The arrival of thousands of refugees from Aleppo in Idlib raised fears that the rebel-held city in northwestern Syria could be next. Assad has said his forces would march on other rebel areas.
“Many of them have gone to Idlib, which could be in theory the next Aleppo,” UN Syrian envoy Staffan de Mistura said.
He said a cessation of hostilities across Syria was vital if another battle like the bloody struggle for Aleppo was to be avoided.
In comments after meeting a senior Iranian delegation, Assad said his battlefield successes were a “basic step on the road to ending terrorism in the whole of Syria and creating the right circumstances for a solution to end the war.”
With the evacuation now over, Russia, Turkey, and Iran say they are continuing their efforts to broker a broader cease-fire in the country and have offered to act as “guarantors” of an eventual political settlement.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters