Aleppo has been described as the Srebrenica, and the Rwanda, of our time. After more than four years of stalemate and months of siege and battle, December 2016 saw the last of the population from the besieged eastern half of the city evacuated on the now-infamous green buses.
The evacuation was the result of a crescendo of brutality. Years of indiscriminate bombings killed thousands and destroyed much of the east of the city. This gave way to months of brutal siege, and finally, to weeks of bombardment and fighting. The final assault resembled the razing of a city and its last inhabitants. Almost 3,500 civilians were reportedly killed by military action between June and December; those who survived made desperate pleas for their lives on social media. As a last-minute deal was reached to evacuate fighters and civilians, Syrians and westerners alike were left relieved that thousands of people were bused out of the city alive, but permanently displaced, as a preferable option to mass murder.
Aleppo is one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world. Before the war, the Old City was a UNESCO heritage site, boasting architecture from 4000 BC. Its colorful, lively souks attracted shoppers, gourmands, historians, and tourists who enjoyed locally produced pistachios, baklava, olive oil, and the famous Aleppo soap. Aleppo stole the hearts of generations of western backpackers and Damascene tourists alike.
The local university taught engineering and physics, among other subjects, to a vibrant blend of students from the city, the countryside, and beyond. Aleppo’s factories, an industrial force within Syria, produced pharmaceuticals, textiles, and other goods both to service the local market and to export. Local restaurants competed for customers from sunrise until late into the night. Even during the first years of conflict, the streets of Aleppo were a riot of life: colorful, redolent with scents, and vibrant with the sound of conversation and community.
Even when the Arab Spring turned to bloodshed in Syria, Aleppo city resisted the violence. While dissent spread across the country in February 2011, it was not until mid-2012 that Aleppo’s protests turned to revolt and, later, to violence. The uprising and resulting conflict were broadly supported within the population of the poorer, more agrarian countryside, while the city’s middle and upper classes were less keen on a fight. Many within the city’s industrial sector saw their financial fortunes tied to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, despite its known brutality.
When wider protests finally came to Aleppo University in May 2012, they were violently repressed by the security services. Armed conflict soon followed. The “day of bloody bread” defined the early period of the war in Aleppo. The Syrian air force repeatedly struck civilians standing in increasingly-long lines for bread, raising accusations that the strikes were a form of collective punishment for those living in areas harboring the uprising. The images showed the savagery that would continue to be meted out on the citizens of Aleppo, disproportionately impacting civilians.
In July 2012, the ground war reached the city, and there it stayed. Aleppo was divided down the middle. The front line, which cut through the Old City, remained almost static for four years. Immobility did not equate to calm and fighting raged over strategic sites such as the airport, the industrial area, and the central prison for years. Most importantly, battles were waged for the Castello Road, which led into the opposition-held east of the city.
A policy characterized as “kneel or starve,” named after graffiti scrawled by pro-Assad forces and seen as a way to break the will and resistance of opposition-held areas, had been implemented across Syria since 2012. Up to forty localities had been besieged at any one time, most encircled by Assad’s forces and their allies, from the “shabiha” militias to Hezbollah forces, Iranian, Iraqi, and Afghan troops. At times, these sieges were loosely enforced, and local businessmen made a profit by paying off checkpoint guards to allow them to bring in goods, which they sold at high prices. At others, they were all but impenetrable.
Russia, which had long supported Assad, joined the war effort in earnest in September 2015, signaling the beginning of the most brutal period of the now six-year conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to be “fighting ISIS,” but his assertion was deceptive: few Russian bombs were aimed at the extremist group. The initial intervention was supposed to be temporary; Putin even claimed to be withdrawing troops in mid-March. Throughout 2016, however, the Russian presence and the Russian airstrikes continued, bringing a new weight of firepower to bear on the opposition.
A “kneel or starve” siege was never far away in Aleppo. The long battle for Castello Road saw predictions of a siege years before it occurred. Access to the opposition-held east of the city was maintained via the precarious northern approach road that snakes down between the central prison and the industrial city on the outskirts of town. For year, snipers lined the two military positions that bordered the road. Cars would drop over a dip at the top of the road, then drive at reckless speeds, hoping to avoid incoming fire or airstrikes. The sides of the road were littered with the burnt-out carcasses of cars and supply trucks that had not made it. As long as goods and people could get in and out, the population within the city was maintained, but the supplies came at an increasing human cost.
— Majd Fahd (@Syria_Protector) July 28, 2016
To retake east Aleppo, the government first needed to break the resistance of the opposition, and the civilians among whom they lived. Beginning in December 2013, an intense “barrel bombing” campaign appeared designed to do just that. The homemade bombs—explosives and shrapnel stuffed into metal barrels and dropped from aircraft—caused large-scale destruction and injury. They were not as deadly as other weapons, but they were destructive and injurious, wholly indiscriminate in targeting, and unpredictable in effect. The campaign continued through 2014, with tens of bombs dropped on the city every month. As a result, much of the population of east Aleppo fled.
In early 2013, the United Nations (UN) reported just over 2.5 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance, living mostly in opposition-held neighborhoods in east Aleppo and into the south west of the city. Each wave of bombing led to a dramatic flow of residents out of the city, toward the countryside, Turkey, or west Aleppo. By the beginning of 2016, only an estimated 300,000 people remained in the whole of the eastern part of the city.
In February 2016, a negotiated ceasefire, or “cessation of hostilities,” brought a let-up in the violence, but it steadily crumbled and by April, the bombing began again. In June, the government’s north Aleppo offensive began, aiming to take back Castello Road and close the ring of besiegers. Within a month, the offensive had succeeded.
To raise the siege, opposition forces launched an operation in August to take control of Ramousah Road in the southwest of the city. This, too, was successful, and allowed the opposition some precarious access, but the road came under heavy shelling, preventing UN and larger aid convoys from getting through. Cutting the government’s access to Ramousah Road also practically besieged west Aleppo: this led to a spike in the prices of goods and adversely affected civilians living in the west of the city. While the use of sieges against civilian areas in Syria has overwhelmingly been on the part of the Syrian government, it has been deployed by almost all parties at some point in the conflict, only the government, however, has used it systematically.
When the residents of the opposition-held Damascus suburb of Darayya were evacuated after enduring four years of siege and a brutal military campaign that pushed them to accept the displacement of all residents—civilians and armed opposition fighters alike—in late August 2016, the government’s attention turned to Aleppo. There was a rapid military push to take back control of Ramousah Road from the opposition and by September 4, the final siege was in place.
Mid-September saw a short ceasefire, painfully negotiated by the US and Russia, with terms that were listed down to the letter. Humanitarian aid was to be brought in through Castello Road, an arrangement that angered those in the east of the city, who saw this as legitimization of the siege. In the end, no aid moved into east Aleppo during the ceasefire, which limped through a few tentative days of peace before being broken when Russian jets, allegedly, struck a Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy in western Aleppo as it crossed the line toward an opposition-held area. Despite the fact that the convoy had obtained the correct permission from Damascus, eighteen trucks were destroyed and twenty aid workers killed.
When the final siege began, east Aleppo was served by only ten hospitals and seventeen clinics, staffed by just over thirty doctors, according to internal UN planning documents. These medical facilities were repeatedly hit by airstrikes, forcing staff to close them down or shift their work onto lower floors and basements. In late September, locals reported that Russian forces had begun using “bunker buster” bombs, capable of penetrating into the ground, though hard evidence of the munitions used in the attacks was scarce.
On September 22, Syrian, Russian, Hezbollah, and Iranian forces and militia began the offensive to take back control of Aleppo. The targeting of hospitals, rescue workers, bakeries, schools, and humanitarian workers increased; so, too, did the incidence of chemical, incendiary, and cluster munitions being used against the city, as this report will detail. Frequently, the limited hospital facilities were overloaded, trauma patients littered the floors and hallways, and the few remaining doctors worked around the clock with dwindling supplies.
In Darayya and al-Waer, suburbs of Damascus and Homs respectively, heavy attacks on humanitarian structures and civilians had preceded a truce deal and an evacuation—in the case of Darayya the evacuation extended to all residents; in the case of al-Waer to a smaller number, including fighters, but the siege remains in place. As the attacks on east Aleppo’s hospitals continued, the stage was set for Assad’s final assault.
In the last week of November, government ground forces pushed on the east Aleppo suburb of Hanano, which had become the front line within the besieged area. Within days, pro-government forces had split the enclave in two. Thousands fled, some through the fields toward the countryside or out through Hanano to a reception center in Jibreen, others to Sheikh Najar, a Kurdish-held part of the city. A deal was cut between the opposition and the Kurdish forces under which the opposition would withdraw, the civilians could stay, and the Kurds would take control, but the areas were quickly handed over to the government and its allies. Reports of detentions and executions began but were difficult to substantiate in the rapidly changing environment.
On December 5, Russia and China vetoed a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution drafted by New Zealand, Spain, and Egypt that called for a ceasefire in Aleppo. The offensive continued.
By December 13, just 5 percent of east Aleppo was still in opposition hands. Thousands of human beings had been packed into an ever-decreasing area. Those most concerned for their lives were not just opposition fighters, but activists, journalists, doctors, aid workers, rescue workers, those wanted for state military service, and families of those wanted by the government’s security apparatus: refuge in government-controlled areas held no appeal for those who believed they would end up in a government prison, or grave, if caught. Their desperate pleas were broadcast around the world, and a last-minute reprieve was granted in the form of an evacuation deal agreed between the opposition fighters and Russia.
The evacuation was to begin on the morning of December 14, but the buses were stopped at the last checkpoint by Iranian militants. After knife-edge diplomacy and negotiation, the evacuation got on track, was again stopped, then resumed. More than once, buses were halted for hours, the passengers forced to defecate in the vehicles and in some cases sent back to east Aleppo; others were ordered off the buses—videos leaked online showed them being robbed at gunpoint.
The surviving civilians who arrived on buses in the west Aleppo countryside were in desperate condition: aid workers reported that they were malnourished, suffering from untreated shrapnel wounds, and deeply traumatized.
As the dust settled and a limited number of western reporters and international aid organizations were allowed into the empty areas, the grim reality was clear. The scale of the physical destruction spoke for itself. There was little left.
On December 22, the Syrian government declared all of Aleppo was back under its control. But there was little rejoicing. What had been done to Aleppo, and the people living there, to bring the city back under Assad’s rule, was almost indescribable. The price of control was destruction. The city—that bustling, colorful, vibrant city, the heart of Syria—had been broken.