Syrian rebels on the cusp of losing Aleppo as humanitarian crisis deepens

Pro-government troops in Syria have swept into the Old City quarter of Aleppo, swiftly moving toward a complete takeover of the city from rebels who had once hoped to use it as a springboard to national power.

Aid groups reported Wednesday that more than 31,000 people had been displaced by fighting in the last 10 days as troops loyal to President Bashar Assad bombarded eastern neighborhoods in an effort to dislodge the insurgents from their last stronghold.

Although a government victory in Aleppo would not end the war, it would place Assad as the undisputed master of Syria's major cities. For the rebels, losing Aleppo would be a powerful blow to their legitimacy as a military force that has long sought more committed support from the international community.

As the crisis deepened, the White House on Wednesday joined major Western allies in condemning the "humanitarian disaster" gripping the city and reiterated demands for an “urgent” cease-fire.

Russia and China on Monday vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have included a halt to Russian and Syrian bombardments to allow for aid and escape by civilians.

The United States, along with Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, accused Russia of preventing the U.N. from being able to "put an end to the atrocities" that the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, is committing. These include the deliberate bombings of hospitals and schools and wholesale slaughter of civilians, the countries said.

Civilian sites "appear to be the targets of attack in an attempt to wear people down," the countries' statement continued. "The images of dying children are heartbreaking…. A humanitarian disaster is taking place before our very eyes." 

State media reported Tuesday that the government army and its allies had taken back at least five neighborhoods. By the next morning, the rebels had abandoned their positions in the Old City quarter, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog.

Several more neighborhoods fell Wednesday. Government supporters posted video on social media showing residents on the western side of the city cheering the takeover.

Opposition loyalists seemed to acknowledge defeat in their posts about infighting among rebel factions remaining in the city.

With their enclave disintegrating, many rebels escaped through a narrow corridor near the citadel — a majestic hilltop palace now ravaged by fighting — into the few square miles that remain toward the southern part of the city. 

The rebels launched shells into government-held west Aleppo late Tuesday, killing 11 people, the official Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA, reported. It did not specify whether the dead were soldiers or civilians.

A Russian colonel serving as a military advisor was killed in what the Russian Defense Ministry described Wednesday as rebel shelling of residential neighborhoods.

Despite the opposition losses, Zakaria Malahifji, a Turkey-based political spokesman for the rebel faction Fastaqim Kama Umert said the rebels had no plans to surrender.

“There have been collapses, and the opposition has lost neighborhoods, but there is still insistence and steadfastness on some fronts,” he said.

On a pro-opposition Facebook page, one poster claiming to be a rebel in Aleppo vowed to keep fighting, writing: “O soldiers of Bashar [Assad], dance and cheer, for in the coming hours… we will drink of your blood.”

In areas once held by the rebels, the long-running humanitarian crisis grew more dire, aid groups said.

Estimates of the population in rebel-held east Aleppo vary wildly depending on the source, from 60,000 to more than 275,000. Tens of thousands of people have escaped to government-controlled areas and the Sheik Maqsood neighborhood, which is controlled by a Kurdish militia.

SANA reported that 200 civilians were allowed to leave rebel-held zones Tuesday. But opposition supporters accused the government of arresting hundreds of fleeing residents and called for safe passage out of the country.

An unknown number of civilians burrowed deeper into shrinking rebel territory, where aid groups say a months-long blockade has severely depleted food supplies.

“I’m waiting here,” Mahmoud Raslan, an opposition activist, said Wednesday over the messaging service WhatsApp from the Sukkari district, as government shelling continued. “If the revolutionaries leave, I’ll go with them, since I have a family and children. But if they’re staying, I’ll stay.” 

Diaa Absi, a resident of east Aleppo contacted on social media, explained his decision to stay: “Why aren’t we leaving? Because the army and Russia have not opened for us passages to the countryside.”

At the same time, he wrote, “If the army comes to us, we will be slaughtered.”

The Syrian government appeared unwilling to to negotiate a cease-fire.

“Syria confirms that it will not leave its citizens in east Aleppo hostage to the terrorists," said a statement issued Wednesday by the country’s Foreign Ministry, employing the government’s term for the rebels. “We will expend all possible effort to liberate them and reject any attempt from any side to [establish] a cease-fire in east Aleppo, unless it includes the exit of all the terrorists from it.”

Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the U.N., said that previous cease-fires had only been an opportunity for the rebels to regroup in order to resume fighting.

“The U.S., France and Britain have made the U.N. a pulpit to defend the terrorists in Syria…. The member states of the U.N. should not stand behind resolutions that serve only to strengthen terrorism and feed it in Syria,” he said in a statement Monday to the U.N. Security Council.

Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.

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