“In most of the areas where the rebels took over, the civilians fled and came to our areas, so in most of the areas that we encircle and attack are only militants.”
How many people lived in east Aleppo during the siege, and who were they? Reported estimates range from as low as 30,000 to as high as 326,000. The presence of armed groups, in particular a small number of Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), was used as a smokescreen by the government and Russia to portray the city’s overwhelmingly civilian population as a military threat.
The claim that there were “only militants” was never true of Aleppo. Judging by the numbers who fled the city in the final evacuation, the lowest recorded figure, showed at least 110,000 people lived there throughout the siege, the great majority of them non-combatants, including women, the elderly, the disabled, and children. Even using conservative population estimates, over 90 percent of east Aleppo’s people were civilians. They had many reasons for remaining: a survey of survivors listed explanations including a lack of a safe place to go, a desire to stay with family or to protect property, and a fear they would not be able to return if they left.
The distinction between combatants and civilians is fundamental. Deliberately targeting civilians, and conducting indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilian-populated areas, are potential war crimes. Reports in late 2016 from reputable organizations including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) alleged that war crimes had been committed in Aleppo, precisely because of such attacks.
Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
(b) taking of hostages;
(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;
(d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.
Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 1
How Many People In East Aleppo?
Aleppo’s pre-war population was recorded as 2.132 million in the 2004 census and was estimated at 3.164 million in 2011 by the CIA’s World Factbook. The outbreak of fighting in 2012 led to the division of the city into eastern and western halves, with the government holding the west and a patchwork of opposition forces holding the east. A catalogue of violence was inflicted on and thus depleted the population of the east of the city between 2012 and the end of 2015, and by the beginning of 2016 the population of eastern Aleppo was estimated at around 321,995 by the UN.
By the time the first siege of eastern Aleppo began in July 2016, the UN’s official, public-facing numbers stated that approximately 275,000 people were living there. As this was the only official population estimate available, it became the go-to number for journalists and politicians alike. According to UN sources, the number came from the UN’s Turkey hub, which liaises with the international and Syrian NGOs doing most of the cross-border relief work into the east of the city prior to the siege.
UN internal population figures, which are disseminated between humanitarian organizations for operational purposes and are broken down by neighborhood and demographic level, stated in October 2016 that around 190,000 people were living in the east, within the borders of the contested frontlines.
However, between March and September 2016, the UN Damascus hub was using completely different numbers in its written requests to the government of Syria to send humanitarian convoys to east Aleppo. Its figures ranged between 70,000 (requested in February as a plan for March 2016) and 137,500 (requested in August as a plan for September 2016). On two occasions, the government approved convoys to east Aleppo, but with a lower number of beneficiaries (60,000 both in March and in July 2016) whilst other requests during this period went unapproved. Neither convoy was actually delivered.
Within the UN itself, estimates of the population of east Aleppo came with a variation of 200,000 people. The Local Council for Aleppo City reported 52,498 families in the area and calculated, based on an average family size, that the population was 326,340 people in July 2016, according to Siege Watch. The difference may be explained by the fact that some families reported to the UN protection cluster that they had sent some family members outside the city, while others stayed behind to protect family property, meaning the family size within Aleppo city would be smaller than the family itself.
In short, neither the UN, nor anyone else, had a clear idea of the population of the city during the siege.
Collecting data in all areas of Syria is challenging. Researchers in many areas rely on data from local councils or other bodies, including the government. Restrictions on direct access to beneficiaries, imposed by the government or other players, hinder their ability to verify the data independently. In a report on its own performance in March 2016, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) noted that reliable data were lacking.
Some indication of the population of eastern Aleppo during the siege can be deduced from the numbers of those who fled the city at its end. The number of people who registered as Internally Displaced People (IDPs) following the evacuation of east Aleppo was put at more than 111,000 on January 12, 2017. This figure includes those who fled, and those who remained in their homes and registered with UN agencies. Not all those leaving the city will have registered, and others may not have been accounted for, so the total is probably higher than this figure, though by how much is unclear.
Much has been made of the discrepancy between the numbers, in particular by supporters of the government. However, while the issue deserves attention and discussion, and there are lessons that can be drawn from the example, it in no way changes the substantive issue of what occurred in east Aleppo throughout the conflict, and most especially during the final months, weeks, and days of the city.
It is safe to say that tens of thousands of people—certainly more than 111,000 and perhaps as many as 200,000—lived in the city during the siege. It is against this human background that the breaking of Aleppo must be viewed.
Who Lived, and Died, in East Aleppo?
The second question raised about the people of east Aleppo concerns who they were, and what relationship they had to designated terrorist groups.
At the time of the September ceasefire, Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special envoy to Syria, estimated that 8,000 opposition fighters were in the east, of whom around 900 were affiliated with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Based on the lowest credible population figure, 110,000, this would indicate that less than 10 percent of the population of east Aleppo were fighters.
Western diplomats disputed de Mistura’s figures for the number of JSF fighters at the time, telling Reuters the real figure was in the region of 100–200. The opposition offensive in late October, designed to break the siege, also certainly included JFS fighters, though how many is unclear.
However, de Mistura’s figures for the overall number of fighters were not challenged in the same way. These figures should always be borne in mind when considering the military actions conducted throughout east Aleppo. At a conservative estimate, over ninety percent of the people in east Aleppo during the siege were non-combatants.
Despite this, the Syrian government and its allies consistently treated east Aleppo and its people as combatants, guilty until proven innocent.
One telling indicator of this approach was the way the government of Syria provided its breakdown of those in east Aleppo to the UN, when negotiations for medical evacuations were taking place during potential ceasefires.
The government classified each group with regard to its relationship to the Syrian Government (GoS) and “armed opposition groups” (AOGs):
|A||Not affiliated with AOGs; cleared by GoS||People/patients who have been cleared by the security apparatus and can easily travel between east and west Aleppo to obtain public health care services.|
|B||Affiliated with AoG||Family members of people affiliated with may fear persecution if they cross from east to west Aleppo. However, records show that regardless of their affiliation, no woman or child from east Aleppo has been turned away from health care facilities in west Aleppo. These patients have been able to stay for up to one month in west Aleppo for the purpose of receiving health care.|
|C||Members of AOGs||Current combatants may be the subject of the latest Amnesty announced by the President of Syria on 28 July 2016. They have the option of either 1) leaving east Aleppo for Idleb or rural Aleppo or 2) staying inside east Aleppo.|
The three categories are: “not affiliated with AOGs, cleared by the government”; “affiliated with AOGs”; and “members of AOGs.” Thus individuals could only be viewed as civilians if they had been cleared by the government. International humanitarian law defines a civilian as “any person who is not a member of armed forces.” In east Aleppo, the definition of a civilian was effectively narrowed down to “a person cleared by the government.”
Assad himself gave an early indication of this stance in an interview given to the BBC in February 2015:
Q. Can we talk about the humanitarian situation a little bit? One of the effective military tactics your… the Syrian Army has used, is to isolate areas held by rebels, and effectively to starve them out. But that has had the effect also to starve the civilians, and that, again, is against the laws of war, starving civilians.
A. That’s not correct for one reason, because in most of the areas where the rebels took over, the civilians fled and came to our areas, so in most of the areas that we encircle and attack are only militants.
Yet, the great majority of Aleppo’s people were not militants, and they did not stay to fight. In November 2016, the UN’s “protection cluster,” part of the Turkey hub, conducted a survey of residents within east Aleppo and asked why they had stayed in the war-torn city. Many reasons were given, from the lack of a safe place to go, to a need to stay with family. “Others noted that they did not want to leave their city or their country, that they had lived there for a long time, that they deserved to live in their houses, that they made up their mind at the beginning of the conflict and still insisted to stay, that their livelihood was inside East Aleppo city, and that they ‘did not want the Government of Syria to enter their area,’ and that they did not want to meet the same fate as Darayya.”
Every demographic group could find reasons to stay. Many young men of fighting age wished to avoid conscription into the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), where mandatory service continues. A recently published list of those in Aleppo who had dodged conscription numbered 66,000. It was published by a Syrian news outlet called Zaman al-wasl, which said that the list was issued by a military court.
Such lists should not be taken at face value. However, the names of over a dozen east Aleppo residents who are known to have avoided the draft were checked against the database, and they showed up in all cases, suggesting the list is, indeed, legitimate. In many cases, men such as these sent their families to government-held areas for safety, but could not follow, for fear they would face instant conscription—a fear that was justified in some cases.
A Reuters photographer was present as hundreds of young men rounded up from east Aleppo were forcibly conscripted by the Syrian army today. pic.twitter.com/j52VBQYkqm
— Omar Ghabra (@omarghabra) December 13, 2016
Others did not leave because they could not. The UN’s November survey reported that nearly 4 percent of respondents were disabled. During the evacuation, the ICRC found 150 mostly elderly and incapacitated people within a former elder care home in the Old City of Aleppo and rescued them at great personal risk.
Children, too, were in east Aleppo. Unfortunately, their presence was often highlighted only when they came to harm. In August, the image of little Omran Daqneesh went viral when he was pulled from the rubble after an attack in Aleppo and lifted into an ambulance, bloodied and bemused. Images of an attack in Hanano on November 18, thought to have been committed using chlorine gas, showed dozens of children with breathing difficulties; footage of people fleeing Hanano into Sheikh Maqsoud during the offensive in late November showed many children among the crowds. Seven-year-old Bana al-Abed was living in the besieged city with her mother, when they began tweeting about their experiences. As a later chapter will discuss, Bana was attacked bitterly by government supporters as a result; the fact remains that a young child was present in Aleppo and was a direct witness to the indiscriminate strikes.
Still others stayed to help. Twenty-nine NGOs, both international and Syrian, were operating in east Aleppo during the siege. Each had staff in the area; in some cases, they had tens of workers. Journalists, too, stayed to report, despite the danger of imprisonment and death. A number of reporters, for outlets ranging from the wires Reuters, Agence France-Presse (AFP), and Anadolu, through to Aleppo 24 and “on the ground” news reporters, were inside the siege. Activists were also plentiful, tweeting and “whatsapping” images to reporters and the world at large. Again, these commentators met with a savage response from the besieging powers, who portrayed them as parties to the conflict.
None of these was a combatant, despite attempts by pro-government commentators to portray them as such. All the evidence shows that east Aleppo was, and remained, an overwhelmingly civilian-populated area throughout the siege. It should have been treated as such.
As this report will show, it was not.