An Agonizing Farewell
In November, Assad’s final push to retake control of Aleppo began. Through the second half of November and into early December, thousands of people fled east Aleppo, seeking refuge from the military campaign. In a rapidly shifting and high-stakes situation that unfolded over several weeks, allegations of executions, arrests, and desperate pleas to be saved, swirled around in the media and diplomatic circles. Verification of specific cases and the circumstances of those in the city in real time was hampered by the constantly changing events on the ground.
After vetoes by Russia and China prevented the UN Security Council (UNSC) from passing a ceasefire resolution on December 6, a deal to evacuate the city was struck between the city’s armed opposition and Russia. Opposition-controlled Aleppo was just 5 percent of the size it had been by the time the evacuations began on December 14.
Green buses are now a familiar sight in Syria, and have become a powerful symbol of the “reconciliation” policy being enacted across the country. As the green buses rolled in and out of east Aleppo, a fraught and heavily choreographed evacuation carried the remaining survivors out of the city, and the villages of Foua and Kafraya. Buses were stopped or held up, the evacuation stalled entirely more than once, and in some cases evacuees were reportedly arrested, or killed.
By December 23, 2016, the evacuation of east Aleppo was over, and the Syrian government and its allies celebrated victory. Those who had left their homes registered as internally displaced, and aid agencies examined the scale of need, both inside and outside the city.
The evacuation was a relief for many, but not for all. Over 1,800 people from Aleppo were reportedly arrested in December alone; some of those arrests can now be verified. Executions, too, can be examined. Such examinations are essential when assessing the risk posed to those being evacuated or “reconciled” in other localities.
The Final Offensive—Civilians Fleeing
The final offensive to break Aleppo began in late September 2016. Government forces and their allies quickly took back 15-20 percent of the opposition-held part of the city. Within a month, the opposition fighters made their own military play to break the siege, pushing through west Aleppo in a counter-offensive dubbed the “Battle of the Hero Martyr Abu Omar Saraqib.” The counter-offensive was doomed to fail and was rapidly quashed by pro-government forces. Its chosen route saw heavy civilian casualties in the government-held west of the city, with eighty-four fatalities reported during the operation.
On November 4, Putin unilaterally declared a humanitarian pause in Aleppo and highlighted the fact that escape corridors were available for those who wanted to leave the east of the city, though few civilians from east Aleppo used them. Humanitarian corridors had been offered previously. In July, leaflets were dropped offering exit via Bustan al-Qasr and Salah Aldeen. According to activists who spoke to SiegeWatch at the time: “Two people attempted to use the corridors and were killed. Their bodies are still there because people can’t reach them because of the sniping.”
The final offensive began on November 15. Between November 15 and November 28, over 500 civilians were reported killed and more than 1,700 injured in the bombardment and heavy fighting in east Aleppo. Around twenty-nine were killed in west Aleppo during the same period.
On November 27, government forces, along with their allies, established control over the Hanano neighborhood of east Aleppo. The push began to split the eastern enclave in two. Thousands began to flee the opposition-held enclave, and were taken to a processing center in Jibreen.
On the same day, armed opposition groups withdrew to the southern neighborhoods within the shrinking enclave, to avoid becoming trapped. A deal was made with Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces under which the Kurds would come into the areas abandoned by the opposition, creating a more neutral front line and allowing some residents to stay in their homes. However, the areas were turned over to government forces, who thus gained control over the entire northern area of east Aleppo city including Sakhour, Sheikh Kheder, Haydariyah, and Suleiman al-Halabi.
Heavy bombardment of the remaining opposition area continued, and residents tried to flee. On December 2, an estimated forty-four people were killed by shelling while fleeing their homes to seek safety in government controlled areas. In another incident, an elderly woman died and was left in her wheelchair in al-Sha’ar, because it was too dangerous to recover her body. Heavy bombardments continued through early December as discussions on evacuating the area began.
Deal-making: Brokering The Evacuation
On December 5, a UN Security Council Resolution calling for a seven-day ceasefire in east Aleppo was presented by New Zealand, Spain, and Egypt, but Russia and China vetoed it.
As a counter proposal, on December 6, armed opposition groups in east Aleppo offered a three-point deal calling for a five-day humanitarian truce, the medical evacuation of five hundred people, and evacuation of civilians to northern rural Aleppo, as well as “launching negotiations between concerned actors over the future of Aleppo.” According to a recent report from the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), the armed opposition groups were encouraged to make a deal by the citizenry of east Aleppo: “Civilians in the city clearly demanded the leaders of armed groups to initiate the negotiations with the government forces in order to reach a ceasefire and give civilians the chance to evacuate the Eastern neighborhoods.”
The advance of government and aligned forces continued, and by December 7, they were in control of almost 75 percent of the area previously held by the opposition. The following day, ICRC and SARC made a perilous trip to Dar al-Safaa, in the Old City to rescue 150 people caught in the fighting. They were sheltering in what had originally been a home for the elderly, but had expanded to look after patients with mental health needs or physical disabilities as well. Several dozen civilians were also sheltering there.
Russian MoD spokesman Sergei Rudskoy said up to 10,500 people, including 4,015 children, had left, although this figure was not confirmed. Military officials earlier put the figure at 8,000. Russian MoD drone footage of civilians fleeing on December 8 showed the desperation of those trying to reach safety.
Reports of men of military age disappearing after fleeing to government-held west Aleppo began to emerge and were raised to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Images taken on December 11 that show dozens of men beginning their military training after being forced into military service, confirmed the whereabouts of some of them. Other images showed women and families of the men waiting outside the training venue.
Also on December 11, a number of bloggers, activists, medics, and civilians made desperate pleas for their lives from east Aleppo as the enclave grew smaller and smaller, and the bombing more and more intense. Given the reports of civilians pushing the opposition groups to negotiate an evacuation deal, it seems likely these pleas were directed at all parties to the conflict, from the armed opposition to the UNSC, ICRC, the government and Russians. Heavy strikes and the clear sound of gunfights could be heard on an almost-constant basis in the background, as those making the pleas gave follow-up interviews to the international media about their fears.
The calls were successful in one respect, when, on the evening of December 12, the ICRC put out a statement offering to oversee an evacuation attempt after a week of unsuccessful closed-door discussions with all sides. The ICRC and other international organizations had not overseen evacuations in other areas of the country, after the UN received heavy criticism for its presence in the evacuation of Darayya in August. But Aleppo was so high profile, involved so many outside actors, and was so fraught and strategically important for both sides, that they offered to help. The call was a desperate move, but it worked.
By the following day, armed opposition groups controlled just 5 percent of their original territory. Through talks brokered by Turkey, a ceasefire was called and an evacuation deal was reached. Faruk Ahrar, who signed the agreement as one of the negotiators from the opposition side, said at the time: “Last night we signed the agreement with the Assad regime’s representative, the Russian representative, and a mediator called Omar Rahmoun. The agreement is in a written form and we possess a copy with the signature of the four parties mentioned including us. The agreement states that all fighters, civilians, and injured are to be evacuated.” A side deal was made for armed opposition members with weapons to leave in cars, in exchange for prisoners of war.
Struck, and Then Stuck
On December 14, after the deal was struck and the ceasefire was in place, the first buses tried to reach east Aleppo. When they arrived at the last checkpoint, Iranian militias turned them back. The move was a power play by one of the sectarian elements within the group of actors operating in the area in support of Assad. The move was devastating to those waiting for evacuation, who were caught between hope and a sense of helplessness. The situation was precarious. The actors on the government side had conflicting motivations for being involved, and the action seemed to suggest that Assad and Russia did not wield the kind of power over the disparate groups that they had indicated.
After frantic negotiations that lasted hours, a new deal was brokered on December 14. On December 15, the evacuations began. The first buses entered the area and gunfire was reported. Videos of the shooting rapidly spread on social media along with images of a dead ambulance driver and injured colleagues. Eventually, later that day, thirteen ambulances and twenty buses carried out the injured and civilians—a total of 299 children, 678 civilian adults, and 28 wounded.
One health worker waiting for the evacuees at the arrival point in the west Aleppo countryside recounted his experience: “The day after we heard that the evacuations would proceed, we arrived at around 05:00 in the morning at the transfer point, or zero point as we called it, to meet the patients who were going to be evacuated and referred to health facilities. All teams were on the ground and hospitals were ready to receive patients. Ambulances were ready at zero point and more were stationed on the evacuation route from eastern Aleppo to Gaziantep. We waited for the first patients to arrive, but no one came. Ten hours later, at 15:00 in the afternoon, we were told that the first convoy was on its way. When I saw the first ambulance arrive, I started crying. I was not the only one – I noticed other colleagues hiding their tears. It was an unbelievable feeling of relief that this was finally happening. We had been waiting for this moment for the past 3 months. All of our plans were for this moment to happen.”
Online forums suggested certain pro-government militias were planning to interrupt the evacuation. Protesters also blocked the route, buses were stopped, and people were forced out of them according to photos and video leaked at the time.
Maisara K, 20, one of the evacuees from eastern Aleppo, testified to VDC. “All men were gathered together including injuries, we were around 100, they started to check us and forcing to take off our clothes. They confiscated all personal papers and money. Then killed three people who they found personal arms with them.” His testimony was backed up by others. A man called Abu Baker was reportedly killed, and his pregnant wife sustained bleeding and was taken away for medical attention. Reports indicated three deaths and injuries to six other evacuees. The militias confiscated the phones and personal belongings of some of the evacuees, before forcing them to turn back to eastern Aleppo.
Rather than hide their actions, the incidents were claimed online by former residents of Nubil and Zahra, two Shia towns in the Aleppo countryside that previously had been besieged by opposition fighters. Even the leaders of the community were open about their involvement, while a Hezbollah-aligned group released a statement on the delays and the need to include Foua and Kafraya in the evacuation agreement.
Late on December 17, a new deal was reached. This deal was even more complicated than the first, involving a heavily coordinated reciprocal series of evacuations and maneuvers between east Aleppo, the besieged pro-government Shia villages of Foua and Kafraya in the Idlib countryside under siege by JFS, and opposition-held Zabadani and Madaya in the Damascus suburbs that were besieged by Hezbollah and other government-aligned militias. The four towns had been tied into a tit-for-tat agreement brokered by the UN, called the “four towns agreement,” which meant any medical evacuation from one had to be reciprocated with evacuations from the other. The same was true for aid deliveries. Once Foua and Kafraya were in play, Madaya and Zabadani had to be, too. The fate of those in east Aleppo was now tied to four other locations, and theirs, in turn, to the fate of Aleppo.
On the morning of the December 18, civilians in Foua and Kafraya waited to leave, as did those in east Aleppo. However, another problem was brewing. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and aligned groups burned several of the buses waiting to evacuate Foua and Kafraya. The act was widely condemned by both sides, but the culprits were defiant. The burning led to a temporary postponement of the evacuations, but they soon resumed. On Sunday, December 18, evacuation from eastern to western Aleppo started again. An estimated one thousand vehicles evacuated civilians and the injured to field hospitals that day, but some of the buses were detained for extended periods on the way.
Next day, Monday December 19, three different convoys consisting of fifty-one buses and vehicles evacuated around three thousand people, while a convoy from Foua and Kafraya arrived in west Aleppo. The UN Security Council unanimously agreed on a resolution to send UN officials and others to observe the evacuation. On December 20, 21, and 22, the convoys continued, evacuating over one thousand people each day, according to the VDC.
ICRC’s final estimate, on December 23, was that about 34,000 people had left east Aleppo. The evacuation was complete. The World Health Organization reported that, “In total, 811 patients were referred to hospitals in west Aleppo and Idleb (sic), including 100 women and almost 150 children. Of those, nearly 100 patients requiring specialized care were transported to hospitals in Turkey. The other patients were referred to 8 hospitals in western rural Aleppo and Idleb.” Dr. David Nott, who treated some of the evacuees in Idlib, said: “They looked almost like they were coming out of a concentration camp. They were coming in not just injured but dehydrated, malnourished, and psychologically traumatised.” In many cases, surgeons had to re-conduct amputations carried out in east Aleppo with little medicine and equipment.
Those who were evacuated were split between the west Aleppo countryside, Jibreen, the government-held west Aleppo city, and east Aleppo, to which some returned. Those in the west Aleppo countryside and Idlib report airstrikes on areas near them after their evacuation and dissatisfaction with their accommodation. In east Aleppo, looting by government militias has been a major problem. The UN has not been able to gain access to the whole area, being denied access by the Assad government and Russia; pro-Kremlin sources have taken advantage of the fact to accuse the West of disinterest.
Reports of Executions and Arrests
Throughout the last weeks of 2016, there were reports of arrests and executions of people from east Aleppo. Some reports emerged when civilians went to west Aleppo for safety, others when the northern suburbs were taken back by the YPG and government forces, still more as suburbs came back under government control. Many of these reports came from sources who were unwilling to be identified, fearing for their own safety; it is thus difficult to verify them independently. Publicly identifying the victims, too, could endanger them further, so this report will only refer to such names as are already in the public domain.
In mid-January 2017, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that it had documented the arrest or enforced disappearance of no fewer than 2,367 people from Aleppo governorate, including at least 89 women and 64 children, from July 1 to December 31, 2016.
As of January 20, all were believed to be in the Syrian forces’ detention centers. Broken down by month, the cases are as follows:
July: At least 61 people, including 11 women and 10 children
August: At least 48 people, including 8 women and 6 children
September: At least 65 people, including 6 women and 7 children
October: At least 89 people, including 4 women and 9 children
November: At least 61 people, including 13 women and 11 children
December: At least 1897 people, including 47 women and 21 children
Dr. Mahmoud Alsato (also known as Abo Houzaifa) and his wife were both arrested when they left east Aleppo and fled to the west on December 14. The doctor was the manager of Alzoubdiyeh Primary Health Centre. His wife was released; as of January 18, he was still detained.
A correspondent for Aleppo Today, Ahmad Mustafa, and his father and two brothers were reportedly detained after they escaped east Aleppo; a younger brother was reportedly tortured before being released.
Abdulhami Kamel, a member of the White Helmets, was captured while fleeing to safety with his family. He was interviewed by pro-Kremlin media outlet ANNA News, which is based in the breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia— a region that depends on Kremlin military and financial support for its existence. In the interview, Kamel confessed to having staged his rescues in order to receive financing from Europe, Turkey, and “the Gulf monarchs.” However, the White Helmets have said that the “confession” was made under duress, and a follow-up investigation by independent outlet Middle East Eye quoted “local sources” as tracing Kamel to the “Air Force Intelligence security branch in Aleppo, where former prisoners frequently recount abuse by officers.”
One former resident of east Aleppo who is known to this report’s authors said that one of his students, whom he named, was arrested on December 9, together with the student’s father. He also named four male members of a family from the al-Mayasser neighborhood as having been arrested. Another source said he knows “ten people who are arrested now and their families can’t meet them—they are in the secret police prisons.” He was not willing to name the detainees who were reportedly arrested, so verification of these vague reports is difficult.
Arrests of east Aleppo residents reportedly continued into January. On January 3, in Hidaria neighborhood, the identification documents of residents were collected; many young men were reportedly arrested the following day. Another source known to the authors said, “Two of my relatives were arrested after they decided to stay in their houses when the regime’s militias were advancing.” He also named two other men, and a family group, who were arrested when they went from east to west Aleppo.
Accurate information on this issue is sketchy, as relatives are reluctant to provide information, for fear it will place their loved ones in still graver danger; however, the number of reports of arrests is increasing. The Caesar photos, so-called for the code-name of the alleged military defector who smuggled the material out of Syria in August 2013 and showed evidence of the torture and summary execution of thousands of detainees, are a chilling reminder of the fate victims of Syria’s prisons and security services can meet.
Executions were reported on three main occasions. In order to reduce confusion, only civilians reported executed are covered here, despite the fact that the summary execution of any captive is considered unlawful conduct under international law.
When opposition forces withdrew from the northern suburbs of east Aleppo and government forces came into the area, there were reports of executions. In several cases, photographic evidence was provided by former residents of east Aleppo who are known to this report’s authors. They named one of the victims as Mohammad Abdo Sultan, a mechanic who fixes generators whom they knew personally, and who was executed in the northern neighborhoods of east Aleppo beside an unnamed man, reportedly the owner of a bakery. There are other, less specific, allegations from this time.
The UN reported they had received information regarding eighty-two executions in early December. On January 20, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) confirmed in a telephone call that they had had “further corroboration of the executions we reported on in December, and of missing people.” A number of these deaths, which were believed to have been perpetrated by government-aligned militia, not SAA forces, have also been reported by the VDC. On December 12 and 13, the following executions were reported in Kallaseh: the Ajam family (five members), the Hasan family (five members), the Masri family (four members) and an unidentified family (eleven members). In Fardous, reports named the Qaseer family (six members), the Hajjar family (twelve members) and the Sande family (seven members, perhaps more), while in Salheen, the Ekko family (ten members) was named.
These were not the only deaths. Days earlier, it was reported that a man named Mohammad Abo al-Ward and two of his brothers had been executed in al-Sha’ar by Assad troops after they went to a government-held area with their family. On December 23, a former resident of east Aleppo reported that 6 people had been captured in the al-Sakhour neighborhood of Aleppo and killed, including men named Waleed Mostafa Aljadla and Haj Hammoud Alaswad.
More killings were reported to have taken place on December 25, 2016, in a series of field executions in Jibreen, the area to which many evacuees of east Aleppo were taken for processing and screening, and to receive aid, medical care, and other humanitarian services. The names of those reported dead were: Ali Awwad, Hasan al-Awadhi, Khaleel Faqqas, Yaser Bairakdar, Jomaa Abdul Wahed, Yousef Jaberi, Ali Amouri, Hassan al-Azwar, Ghiath al-Younes, Haytham Khamees, Abed Akkam, Kamel al-Omarain, Hasan Hammami, Farouk al-Bushi, and Jasem Ajjan al-Hadeed.
It has been possible to identify over one hundred victims of these summary executions through the last two months of 2016. How many more died in this way during that time, or how many still await the same fate is, as yet, impossible to say. The risk of execution, or arrest, is one faced by others in besieged areas in Syria, and will become an increasing concern as local truces are agreed between the opposition and the government, and areas return to government control.