With the aid of Russian military jets and intelligence units, Syrian armed forces tightened their grip over eastern Aleppo in early December. The fall of the whole city to Assad’s regime is now increasingly likely. Many more civilians are dying, and thousands are fleeing the city.
Since the latest offensive began last month, the territory under the control of Syrian rebels has fallen by 50%. The combined forces of the Syrian army, Shia militias from Iraq, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah have made significant and probably irreversible gains. 30,000 people have already been displaced by the ongoing fighting. Operations in Aleppo’s crumbling and almost non-functioning hospitals are being carried out without anaesthetic, and many civilians have been reduced to scavenging for food.
The UN has said Aleppo could be turned into one big graveyard if there is no cessation in fighting soon. It is estimated that 10% of the residents of Aleppo have fled since the onslaught increased. 19,000 people have fled to government-controlled areas, 5,000 further into rebel held areas and 5,000 to areas in Kurdish control. Before the latest offensive 250,000 people were under siege.
Russia claims it is helping to evacuate civilians, but that rebels are refusing to allow people to leave. In any case: “Those who refuse to leave nicely will be destroyed,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said. Russia is interested with targeting all opposition to Assad under the cover of targeting Daesh and the former Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Throughout much of the rebel-held area the Islamists — JFaS and the Islamic Front of Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam — are the only groups that provide any sort of defence.
The fight is becoming one between Shia militias and their Russian and Iranian allies on the one hand, and different strands of Islamist and Salafist Sunni groups on the other, backed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. With the election of Donald Trump, a “natural ally” as Assad called him, the situation for all sections of the Syrian opposition is bleak.
Trump has made it plain that he sees the only real aim of US intervention into Syria as defeating Daesh and has no interest in removing Assad. The Russian Defence Secretary has confirmed that Putin and Trump have discussed the war in Syria and the possibility of “uniting efforts in the fight with the common enemy number one—international terrorism and extremism.” In this protracted sectarian war where regional powers vie for control over a devastated nation, both civilians and the possibility of a democratic functioning Syria are being destroyed. Whatever solidarity we can show — from supporting demonstrations outside the Russian Embassy, through to campaigning for refugees — we need to do it urgently.