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- 12/13/16--12:11: _Top GOP senators: A...
- 12/13/16--12:52: _Russian envoy to UN...
- 12/13/16--12:58: _UN: US, others wrin...
- 12/13/16--15:34: _'All anyone ever wa...
- 12/13/16--16:02: _What the Middle Eas...
- 12/14/16--00:13: _The evacuation of d...
- 12/14/16--02:12: _Aleppo is under fir...
- 12/14/16--05:55: _'They've announced ...
- 12/14/16--07:35: _Here's how the war ...
- 12/14/16--08:37: _Russia may no longe...
- 12/14/16--11:06: _US: Syrian forces t...
- 12/14/16--11:06: _Experts: US-Russian...
- 12/14/16--12:16: _US State Department...
- 12/14/16--12:33: _Assad's victory in ...
- 12/14/16--13:04: _Syrian rebels: Deal...
- 12/14/16--23:28: _A new truce has bee...
- 12/15/16--00:31: _Pro-Assad forces fi...
- 12/15/16--01:17: _The Syrian army is ...
- 12/15/16--03:35: _At least one person...
- 12/15/16--06:13: _How Russia helped b...
- 12/13/16--12:52: Russian envoy to UN: Aleppo offensive is over
- 12/13/16--16:02: What the Middle East could be like under Trump and Tillerson
- 12/14/16--02:12: Aleppo is under fire again
- 12/14/16--07:35: Here's how the war in Syria unfolded
- 12/14/16--08:37: Russia may no longer be the most powerful actor in Syria
- 12/14/16--12:33: Assad's victory in Syria's largest city will likely lead to more war
- 12/14/16--23:28: A new truce has been reached in Aleppo and evacuations are starting
- 12/15/16--00:31: Pro-Assad forces fire on convoy leaving east Aleppo
- 12/15/16--01:17: The Syrian army is conscripting displaced Aleppo residents
- 12/15/16--06:13: How Russia helped break the stalemate in Syria’s largest city
Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a blistering statement Tuesday condemning the US' failure to act to prevent the "slaughter" of hundreds of thousands of people in Syria.
"The words 'never again' ring hollow today with reports that Aleppo is falling to Assad regime forces," the senators wrote, amid reports that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were on the brink of fully recapturing the besieged city of Aleppo from opposition forces.
"For four long years, Aleppo has been at the center of the Assad regime's war on the Syrian people," the statement continued. "Together with its Russian and Iranian allies, the Assad regime has relentlessly targeted women and children, doctors and rescue workers, hospitals and bakeries, aid warehouses and humanitarian convoys."
Rebel officials inside Aleppo announced Tuesday that they had reached a cease-fire deal with Russia, an ally of Assad, to evacuate roughly 40,000 civilians from the city. Rebel fighters with light arms would be allowed to leave, too.
The talks between Russia and members of the opposition, which came amid reports that pro-government forces had summarily executed dozens of civilians as they moved to clear rebel-held areas on Monday, were being mediated by Turkish officials in Ankara.
McCain and Graham said in their statement that reports of a cease-fire deal "were not a cause to celebrate."
"There are now reports that a 'ceasefire' has been reached in the city," the statement read. "This is not a cause to celebrate, but a sure sign of the fate that awaits other Syrian cities ... the Assad regime will use the ceasefire to reset its war machine and prepare to slaughter its way to victory across the rest of the country."
Previous cease-fire deals have been criticized by both the government and the opposition. Each has accused the other of using pauses in the fighting to regroup.
The senators charged that the brutality of the war, the refugee crisis it spawned, and the rise of the Islamic State's "terrorist army" were "the inevitable result of hollow words and inaction, red lines crossed without consequences, tarnish moral influence, 'leading from behind,' and a total lack of American leadership."
President Barack Obama's decision not to attack Assad after he crossed Obama's so-called "red line" by using chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in August 2013 has been characterized as one of the most decisive moments of the war.
Last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that not following through on the "red line" threat damaged the US' credibility in the region.
"I know the cost – this has been a topic of conversation here – of the president's decision when he decided not to enforce the red line through the bombing," Kerry said at the annual Saban Forum."The lack of doing it perception-wise cost us significantly in the region. I know that and so does the President."
In their joint statement, McCain and Graham used Obama's own words against him.
In 2013, the senators wrote, "President Obama addressed the UN General Assembly: 'Should we really accept the notion that the world is powerless in the face of a Rwanda, or Sbrenica? If that's the world that people want to live in, they should say so, and reckon with the cold logic of mass graves.'"
"That reckoning," wrote McCain and Graham, "is now upon us. The cold logic of mass graves confronts us again, and the name Aleppo will echo through history, like Srebrenica and Rwanda, as a testament to our moral failure and everlasting shame."
A Syrian government military offensive in Aleppo, backed by Russia and Iran, was over, Russia's U.N. envoy said on Tuesday (December 13) as the United States described the violence in the besieged city as "modern evil."
Ambassador Vitaly Churkin initially told a heated U.N. Security Council meeting called by France and Britain the offensive was nearing an end, but he then corrected himself during the meeting that it had indeed already ended.
"The military activities in east Aleppo have stopped," Churkin "The Syrian government has established control over east Aleppo," Churkin said.
He said an agreement had been struck for rebels to evacuate the north-western city and he said civilians would be unharmed, despite western and U.N. accusations of the intentional killing of civilians.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told the council that the Syrian government and its allies Russia and Iran bore responsibility for killings of civilians in Aleppo.
"It is your noose - three member states of the U.N. - contributing to a noose around civilians. It should shame you. Instead by all appearances it is emboldening you. You are plotting your next assault. Are you truly incapable of shame? is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child, that gets under your skin that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?" Power said.
The Syrian army and its allies have driven rebels out of most of the areas of Aleppo they held for years in the space of just weeks, aided by Russian air strikes and the military support of Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and other militias.
Churkin brushed off Power's criticisms.
"As to arbitrary arrests or other violations of this agreement, that was concluded with the illegal armed groups, the Russian military has not reported such violations taking place. Moreover, this information can be confirmed by representatives currently placed in Aleppo of the International Red Cross as well as all UN humanitarian agencies working in Aleppo headed by the resident coordinator," Churkin said.
Syrian rebels said a ceasefire with government forces in Aleppo, agreed after talks between insurgents and Damascus's ally Russia, was to begin late on Tuesday and would include the evacuation of combatants and civilians.
The deal, acknowledged by Russia and Syria, signals Damascus's biggest victory over insurgents fighting to unseat President Bashar al-Assad in nearly six years of civil war, driving them from their last major urban stronghold.
A Syrian military source said the evacuation of fighters for the rebel-controlled western Aleppocountryside would start at 5 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Wednesday. The source said fighters' families would also leave, but did not mention other civilian evacuations.
A statement from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, seemed to lay some blame on the international community's inaction for the "hellish suffering" now taking place in Syria's Aleppo.
“The crushing of Aleppo, the immeasurably terrifying toll on its people, the bloodshed, the wanton slaughter of men, women and children, the destruction — and we are nowhere near the end of this cruel conflict," said Zeid in the UN statement.
"What can happen next, if the international community continues to collectively wring its hands, can be much more dangerous," he added.
Zeid said that the dismal situation in Aleppo, where buildings full of children have reportedly been set on fire, where women are reportedly making the unfathomably grim decision to commit suicide rather than be raped by Syrian President Assad's incoming forces, could "repeat itself in Douma, in Raqqa, in Idleb, (other rebel strongholds)" should the international community fail to hold the forces on the ground accountable.
Zeid pleaded that the international community must insist on establishing a presence in Aleppo, where Russia, Assad's ally, has unilaterally controlled access to the city via a brutal air campaign.
"The world is watching Aleppo — and we are documenting the violations being committed against its people, with the firm conviction that one day those who are responsible will be held to account. We must ensure that this happens. The hellish suffering to which the people of Syria are being subjected must stop," said Zeid.
The Syrian city of Aleppo has mostly fallen to regime forces, leaving opponents of the brutal rule of President Bashar al-Assad feeling hopeless after enduring days of bombardment with an almost complete lack of medical care.
Aid workers described horrific conditions — a lack of medicine and medical supplies, a lack of ambulances, and bodies buried under rubble.
"Nothing could explain the medical situation," Abdusalam Daeif, a doctor from the Syria Relief and Development organization, told Business Insider via WhatsApp. "A lot of injuries on the streets. No one could help them. No ambulance cars. No medical points. It is impossible to count them."
The White Helmets, which have been praised for their work as first responders inside Syria, have described a dire situation.
Over "100,000 civilians are packed into a tiny area," the organization tweeted Monday. "Bombing + shelling relentless. Casualties unimaginable. Bodies lie where they fell."
Aid workers who regularly risk their lives to save civilians, meanwhile, say there's not much more they can do to help the situation in Aleppo.
"We hear children crying, we hear calls for help, but we just can't do anything," the White Helmets tweeted. "We're being bombed continuously."
Daeif has staff on the ground in Aleppo, where he says only one hospital is still functional. All other health facilities have reportedly been destroyed.
But even the one functioning hospital has run out of supplies, Daeif said.
"They receive more than 350 injuries per day," he said. "They used all medical supplies and drugs last month."
Abu Faisal, a Syrian aid worker who goes by a pseudonym and works with various groups inside the country, said he's not sure what has happened to people he's worked with in Aleppo.
"There are no aid operations or any type of municipal or civil services running and nor is there any type of organization on any level at all, just people running around as the bombing gets worse and the area gets smaller," he told Business Insider via email. "There is not much more room to run or hide and it's all chaos. For most of our friends and contacts we work with, we don't know if they are dead, captured or surrendered to the regime."
He described widespread destruction that surpasses what has been seen in the war to date.
"Every single project in Syria (except for a handful in Idleb) we built over the last four years has been destroyed in the last six months," Faisal said. "Clinics, bakeries, schools, factories, coffee shops, farms, distribution centers ... all of it is gone."
Faisal made a plea for help from foreign countries that have so far been reluctant to increase their involvement in the war.
"Trying to keep our aid operations alive is futile against all of the politics," he said. "I know people are sick and tired of hearing us Syrians, but I swear to God all anyone ever wanted was to be treated no better than animals — not even humans, just animals."
Rebel groups announced Tuesday that they had reached a ceasefire deal with Russia to evacuate some opposition forces and civilians from the city. About 40,000 people will be allowed to leave. There are about 70,000 civilians still trapped in rebel-held areas of Aleppo.
Rebels, including some terrorist factions, have been fighting the brutal Assad regime for more than five years. Assad has hung onto power with the help of allies like Russia and Iran.
Despite the significant terrorist presence inside Syria, many civilians say the Assad regime is their main enemy. The regime, through indiscriminate bombing and other brutal tactics, has killed more Syrian civilians than terrorist groups.
Faisal seemed resigned to the fact that Assad will likely remain in power.
"If I or anyone knew Assad would have done all of this just to sit on his throne then best we let him sit on it and live like animals, it's better than what people are going through now," he said. "What I do know is that if Assad thinks he can rebuild his regime on the graves of Syrians using his foreign armies, he won't last long, we will be back."
Can President-elect Donald Trump adopt policies that respond to the realities of today’s Middle East, despite his lack of regional knowledge, absence of deep engagement in global issues and use of inflammatory language toward Muslims?
It’s still too early to answer this question definitively, but Trump’s pick of oil executive Rex Tillerson for secretary of state heightens concerns about the Trump administration’s possible excessive closeness to Russia, while leaving other likely U.S. foreign policy priorities unclear.
Nonetheless, it is conceivable that some of Trump’s postures on the campaign trail and the general appeal he made to his voters could help him respond to issues facing the contemporary Middle East. That’s especially true if he could build policies that eschewed Islamophobia and American militarism.
As a scholar with broad expertise in contemporary Middle Eastern law and politics, who was among those who foresaw the likely rise in Islamic extremism and instability following the U.S. regime overthrow in Iraq, I’m in a good position to analyze the realities the Trump administration will face.
First of all, ignoring the Middle East is not an option. Humanitarian crises – think Syria– and regional popular dissatisfaction with politics and economics will inevitably affect Americans’ security at home and abroad. That’s why it’s important to envision how the new U.S. government can actually capitalize on Trump’s lack of prior foreign policy experience to seek policies that can help both Americans and Middle Easterners.
Anti-Islamic postures are not productive
The aftermath of the 2011 mass uprisings against unpopular, coercive governments in the Middle East and North Africa was renewed authoritarianism and devastating civil war. As a result, leaders and many citizens in today’s Middle East have deferred their hopes for democratizing change. They fear that the violence and chaos that decimated Syria and Yemen will spread to them. Yet the region has a young population with strong interest in better economic opportunity and greater freedom.
Muslims are a large majority in the region. As a candidate, Trump’s clearest stance relevant to the Middle East was a willingness to appeal to some Americans’ mistrust of Muslims. People who have experience with Middle Eastern extremism warn that looking at the region through an Islamophobic lens won’t lead to any good.
Even common sense, which Trump and Tillerson seem to share, suggests hostile statements by a world leader toward a region’s majority religion are destructive. Indeed, militant group propagandists have been gleeful in their expectations that the incoming U.S. leader’s anti-Islamic statements will enhance their recruitment.
President-elect Trump should back off from inflammatory language that demeans Muslims broadly in favor of a clear-headed appreciation of regional concerns. Doing this is imaginable if he can build on aspects of other positions he took during the campaign. Key among these postures are the view that the U.S. is too enmeshed in global alliances and politics, a determination to destroy the Islamic State, concern about spillover of the Syrian crisis into the U.S. and mistrust of Iran.
Let’s consider each one.
US involvement in the Middle East
Like Trump, some Middle Eastern governments, concerned with a legacy of excessive Western imperial domination and American interference, might favor less extensive U.S. enmeshment in the region.
Others realize that a less robust American engagement risks enhancing the power of repressive leaders like Syria’s Assad or decreasing U.S. global power. It would also likely mean no progress, or worse, for long-suffering Palestinians and Israelis.
Yet, weaker U.S. unilateral enmeshment in regional issues may avoid future long-term disasters like Iraq. It would prevent inconsistent or hypocritical efforts to promote American priorities in the region from making some issues worse. Tunisia, the one Arab country that made a transition to democracy after the 2011 regional uprisings, did so without being a major U.S. priority. Some scaling back of U.S. efforts in the region, assessed soberly with a view to U.S. priorities, would be not only welcome in some quarters, but arguably no less effective than current policy. Indeed, a well-planned reduced U.S. role could encourage greater capacity for Middle East regional institutions like the Gulf Cooperation Council, which has proven elusive in the past.
Defeat IS, but then what?
Most countries in the region have no love for IS. They have cooperated financially, logistically or militarily, in the effort to destroy it that is succeeding on the battlefield. Yet, as was true with Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in Iraq in 2003, U.S.-supported military efforts to oust a toxic political entity are just a first step. Understanding the reconstruction that must follow is central.
The Iraqi government’s lack of control over parts of the country’s territory, its ties to Iran and the expectations for some subnational ethnic group autonomy are key problems that no great power can afford to ignore. Doing so may sow the seeds for future IS-like entities.
Spillover from Syria
A third point that Trump stressed while campaigning was a fear that the Syrian crisis’ spillover would lead refugees to the U.S. where they could pose a security risk.
This fear is unfounded. Only a small number of Syrian refugees are accepted by the U.S. The Department of Homeland Security has a stringent process of refugee approval. What’s more, refugees have historically made important contributions to American society. Practically speaking, people fleeing groups like IS could help American efforts to combat the groups and their violent ideology.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine Trump opening U.S. borders to Syrian refugees. But the Syrian humanitarian crisis won’t go away simply because Trump might prefer to ignore it. Syria’s tragedy has only intensified in the wake of limited global action.
As with IS, it would be foolhardy if the new administration turned its back on the broad dangers represented by Syria’s collapse. Europe and Turkey are turning away people fleeing Syria’s and Yemen’s violence. A policy that would be consistent with Trump’s unwillingness to increase refugee presence on U.S. soil would be to provide more consistent post-conflict services. These could include vocational training and jobs for the millions of Syrian civilians in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Research on extremism suggests that recruits are driven by issues of identity and perceived deprivation or social exclusion, not specific ideological or religious beliefs. This danger has been, and remains, acute in Syria and will require practical attention.
What about Iran?
Trump has also promised to renegotiate the multilateral treaty that stopped Iran’s move toward nuclear weapons. Arab Gulf states frequently express anxiety around Iran’s power. They see Iran as a threat to their countries’ autonomy and to the majority Sunni Islam that differs from the assertive minority Shi’ism central to Iran’s political ideology.
While some Middle Eastern countries may welcome a renewed U.S. hard line toward Tehran, other factors could nudge the Trump administration toward little more than a symbolic push against the treaty. These include the opportunities for American companies to sell to Iran; Iranian oil, in which Tillerson’s company has shown interest; Russia’s good ties to Iran; and the real risks of an Iran with nuclear weapons.
In any case, the U.S. will not be able to ignore Iran’s role as a player in regional politics. This role annoys Israel and some Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. Indeed, American pragmatism and fresh eyes could actually help an ongoing, acrimonious struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence in the oil-rich Gulf that can be expected to be viewed as important by Tillerson.
The bigger picture
Perhaps candidate Trump’s main message was that bloated government has failed to serve many people. Many Middle Easterners feel this exact sentiment toward their own political systems.
“Drain the swamp” could well have been a winning slogan during the 2011 Middle East uprisings – except for its geographical mismatch in a desert region. Trump should readily understand the long-seething anger which Middle Easterners harbor toward their leaders and economic prospects.
If the new U.S. leader works with his pragmatic, deal-oriented nominee for secretary of state, and can tune his ear toward this frustration that ordinary Middle Easterners share with his own supporters, he might apply his affinities for business and construction to policies and projects that could address the region’s predominantly sociopolitical grievances. This is admittedly a huge “if.”
It means focusing U.S. foreign policy on common interests between nonelite Americans and Middle Easterners, rather than deference to either regional governments’ or Russia’s often-repressive definitions of these interests, or a narrow conception of American nationalism.
For now, the incoming U.S. top leaders should deploy their outsiders’ independence to reject both dangerous generalized Islamophobia and calls to renew failed militarism. If President-elect Trump could develop an approach to the Middle East that’s distinct from Russia’s, and that’s attuned to, and not a retread of, past U.S. failures in the region, he might actually find some support among the many experts skeptical of his foreign policy.
The evacuation of civilians and rebels from remaining opposition-held territory in east Aleppo was delayed by several hours on Wednesday morning, an AFP journalist in the city reported.
Implementation of the deal, brokered by Russia and Turkey, was expected to begin around 3 a.m. GMT, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and sources on the ground said.
But three hours later, a dozen green government buses that had gathered at the edge of the Salaheddin neighbourhood to transport evacuees were still parked with their drivers asleep inside.
There was no immediate official explanation for the delay from the government or the rebels, or from the deal's co-sponsors.
The agreement was announced late Tuesday, as government forces were on the verge of recapturing all of east Aleppo, in rebel hands since 2012. In the last parts of the city still held by the rebels, large crowds gathered from before dawn awaiting evacuation.
Many spent the night in the street despite a storm, as they had fled from other areas and had nowhere to stay. Tens of thousands of civilians have stayed on in the ever-shrinking rebel enclave for fear of arrest or torture by government forces.
Many more have fled to government-held districts or to territory controlled by Kurdish fighters. Under the evacuation deal, both civilians and rebel fighters are to be transported to rebel-held territory elsewhere in northern Syria.
MOSCOW — Russia's defense ministry said on Wednesday that the Syrian army resumed its assault in eastern Aleppo after rebels broke a truce intended to allow them to evacuate.
The ministry said its military monitors in Syria had organized the evacuation of fighters from the city by bus following an agreement between rebel leaders and Damascus, a process that was supposed to begin at 4 a.m. GMT (11 p.m. ET on Tuesday).
But the convoy of civilian buses gathered in the Salaheddin neighborhood came under fire from rebel territory after the fighters "regrouped and relaunched hostilities" in an attempt to break through Syrian positions to the northwest, the ministry said.
"The attack by the terrorists was warded off. The Syrian army continued its operation to liberate the eastern districts of Aleppo controlled by the rebels," Russia's military said in a statement, without specifying whether the regime operation was ongoing.
A deal reached Tuesday, which would end years of opposition resistance in the city, called on civilians and rebels to promptly start evacuating from Aleppo.
If implemented, the deal would mark a major victory for President Bashar Assad over opposition forces who rose up against him in 2011.
Earlier Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow expected rebel resistance in Aleppo to end in the next "two to three days" and for the situation to be "resolved."
Moscow is backing staunch ally Assad's forces with a bombing campaign, while Washington has supported rebel forces battling the regime.
The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement that Lavrov had on Tuesday discussed the situation in Aleppo with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Turkey on Tuesday confirmed that a cease-fire deal had been struck and that those leaving would go to the northwest province of Idlib, almost completely controlled by a powerful rebel alliance known as the Army of Conquest.
The fall of Aleppo would be the worst rebel defeat since Syria's conflict began in 2011; it would leave the government in control of the country's five major cities.
More than 300,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict, and over half the population has been displaced, with millions becoming refugees.
BEIRUT — A cease-fire deal between rebels and the Syrian government in the city of Aleppo effectively collapsed on Wednesday, with fighter jets resuming deadly air raids over the opposition's densely crowded enclave in the east of the city.
The attacks threatened to scuttle plans to evacuate rebels and tens thousands of civilians out of harm's way, in what would seal the opposition's surrender of the city.
The evacuation was supposed to begin at dawn, but shelling resumed in the morning hours and buses meant to be used in the pullout of rebels and civilians returned to their depots. Activists and fighters trapped in the opposition's last sliver of territory in Aleppo said pro-government forces had struck their district with dozens of rockets since midmorning.
They said aircraft resumed bombing shortly after noon.
"They began to strike as if there's no such thing as a 'cease-fire' or 'civilian evacuation,'" media activist Mahmoud Raslan said. "They've announced they are going to kill us all."
It was not clear whether the planes were Syrian or Russian. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported at least six people had been killed.
A legal adviser to the rebels accused Iran of foiling the Russia- and Turkey-brokered deal by imposing new conditions on the rebels. Along with Russia, Iran backs President Bashar Assad's government and has committed advisers and elite Revolutionary Guard forces to the government's war. Turkey backs the rebels fighting to topple Assad.
Osama Abo Zaid, the adviser, said Iran was imposing new conditions for the truce, demanding that the remains of Iranians killed in Aleppo be returned and that Iranian hostages held in rebel-controlled Idlib province be released. He said the conditions were "exclusively sectarian and crippling."
The Syrian government, meanwhile, withdrew its green-colored buses from the evacuation point at the edge of the city of Aleppo's opposition enclave. The Lebanese al-Manar TV, the media arm of the Lebanese militant Shiite group Hezbollah fighting alongside Assad's forces, broadcast footage of the buses leaving the evacuation point empty and said government forces had resumed fighting with rebels in the city.
Mohammed Abu Jaafar, the head of forensics in eastern Aleppo, said eastern Aleppo residents felt "duped."
"People have left their shelters .... to be ready for the evacuation. I can't describe it," Abu Jaafar said. "Since the morning, they started to target the areas where people have gathered ... these people were walking to the crossings designated for exit."
Activists in eastern Aleppo blamed the violence on pro-government forces, saying they shot first. Raslan said he was reporting for a Turkish agency when a rocket crashed nearby at about 10:15 a.m. He shared an audio recording of the explosion with the Associated Press. He was unharmed.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that the rebels "resumed the hostilities" at dawn, trying to break through Syrian government positions to the northwest.
Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, accused the Syrian government and its allies of trying to scuttle the deal. "We see now that the regime and other groups are trying to obstruct this (deal)," he said in remarks quoted by the state-run Anadolu Agency. "This includes Russia, Iran, forces supported by Iran, and the regime."
The surrender of Aleppo's remaining opposition-run neighborhoods to government control would be a turning point in Syria's civil war.
The last-minute deal was mediated by Ankara and Moscow as the rebel enclave rapidly dissolved and ceded more and more territory in the face of the brutal advance by Syrian forces, backed by Russia and assisted by Shiite militias from Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Late on Tuesday, the UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called for immediate access to the former rebel enclave to confirm the end of military operations and to oversee the safe departure of tens of thousands of civilians and opposition fighters. De Mistura was at the Security Council, where an emergency meeting for Aleppo was held.
Earlier Wednesday, the pan-Arab al-Mayadeen TV broadcast footage of the government buses idling at the agreed-on evacuation point. The TV said the buses were prepared to move 5,000 fighters and their families to Atareb, an opposition-held town in the northwestern Aleppo countryside.
Brita Haj Hassan, a Syrian opposition official living in exile, said from Luxemburg that there were 800 sick and wounded people requiring immediate medical evacuation from eastern Aleppo. He said the UN and others had informed the opposition the evacuation had been delayed until Thursday but there was no comment from the Syrian government, the United Nations, or aid groups on the ground.
The dramatic developments surrounding Aleppo — which would restore the remainder of what was once Syria's largest city to Assad's forces after months of heavy fighting and a crippling siege — followed reports of mass killings by government forces closing in on the final few blocks still held by the rebels.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the emergency meeting late Tuesday that he had received "credible reports" of civilians killed by pro-government forces as they swept into the last rebel areas in Aleppo.
Bashar al-Ja'afari, Syria's UN ambassador, denied any mass killings or revenge attacks but added it was Syria's "constitutional right" to go after "terrorists," a reference to all opposition fighters.
"Aleppo has been liberated from terrorists and those who toyed with terrorism," he said. "Aleppo has returned to the nation."
Five years since the conflict began, more than 450,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, more than a million injured and over 12 million Syrians - half the country's prewar population - have been displaced from their homes.
In 2011, what became known as the "Arab Spring" revolts toppled Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
That March, peaceful protests erupted in Syria as well, after 15 boys were detained and tortured for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. One of the boys, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb , was killed after having been brutally tortured.
The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, responded to the protests by killing hundreds of demonstrators and imprisoning many more. In July 2011, defectorsfrom the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group aiming to overthrow the government, and Syria began to slide into civil war.
What caused the uprising?
Initially, lack of freedoms and economic woes fuelled resentment of the Syrian government, and public anger was inflamed by the harsh crackdown on protesters. Successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt energised and gave hope to Syrian pro-democracy activists. Many Islamist movements were also strongly opposed to the Assads' rule.
In 1982, Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, ordered a military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, which killed between 10,000-40,000 people and flattened much of the city.
Even global warming has been claimed to have played a role in sparking the 2011 uprising.
A severe drought plagued Syria from 2007-10, spurring as many as 1.5 million people to migrate from the countryside into cities, which exacerbated poverty and social unrest. Although the initial protests were mostly non-sectarian, armed conflict led to the emergence of starker sectarian divisions.
Minority religious groups tend to support the Assad government, while the overwhelming majority of opposition fighters are Sunni Muslims. Although most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, Syria's security establishment has long been dominated by members of the Alawite sect, of which Assad is a member.
The sectarian split is reflected among regional actors' stances as well. The governments of majority-Shia Iran and Iraq support Assad, as does Lebanon-based Hezbollah; while Sunni-majority states including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others staunchly support the rebels.
Foreign backing and open intervention have played a large role in Syria's civil war. An international coalition led by the United States has bombed targets of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group since 2014.
In September 2015, Russia launched a bombing campaign against what it referred to as "terrorist groups" in Syria, which included ISIL, as well as rebel groups backed by Western states.
Russia has also deployed military advisers to shore up Assad's defences. Several Arab states, along with Turkey, have provided weapons and materiel to rebel groups in Syria.
Many of those fighting come from outside of Syria. The ranks of ISIL include a sizeable number of fighters from around the world. Lebanese members of Hezbollah are fighting on the side of Assad, as are Iranian and Afghan fighters.
Although the US has stated its opposition to the Assad government, it has hesitated to involve itself deeply in the conflict, even after the Assad government allegedly used chemical weapons in 2013, which US President Barack Obama had previously referred to as a "red line" that would prompt intervention.
In October 2015, the US scrapped its controversial programme to train Syrian rebels, after it was revealed that it had spent $500m but only trained 60 fighters.
The situation today
On November 26, the Syrian army launched a military offensive on Aleppo. In less than a month, Syrian troops, with unfettered Russian air support, were able to recapture 90 percent of the eastern part of Aleppo.
On December 13, the Syrian army claimed that 98 percent of east Aleppo was in the hands of Syrian government forces.
Besides, Aleppo, the Syrian government currently controls the capital, Damascus, parts of southern Syria and Deir Az Zor, much of the area near the Syrian-Lebanese border, and the northwestern coastal region. Rebel groups, ISIL, and Kurdish forces control the rest of the country.
Rebel groups continue to jockey against one another for power, and frequently fight each other. The Free Syrian Army has weakened as the war has progressed, while explicitly Islamist groups, such as the al-Nusra Front, that has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, became empowered. Last July, al-Nusra front leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, announced his group's name has also changed to Jabhat Fath al Sham, or The Front for liberation of al Sham.
In 2013, ISIL emerged in northern and eastern Syria after overrunning large portions of Iraq. The group quickly gained international notoriety for its brutal executions and its energetic use of social media.
Meanwhile, Kurdish groups in northern Syria are seeking self-rule in areas under their control. This has alarmed Turkey's government, which fears its large native Kurdish population may grow more restive and demand greater autonomy as a result.
Last August, Turkish troops and special forces, backed by the Free Syria Army, launched operation "Euphrates Shield"against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) to liberate the strategic Syrian city of Jarablus on the border with Turkey.
Euphrates Shield operation is considered to be the first Turkish ground intervention in Syria since the Syrian crisis started in 2011.
The Syrian war is creating profound effects far beyond the country's borders. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are hosting large and growing numbers of Syrian refugees, many of whom have attempted to journey onwards to Europe in search of better conditions.
But with much of the country in ruins, millions of Syrians having fled abroad, and a population deeply traumatised by war, one thing is certain: Rebuilding Syria after the war ends will be a lengthy, extremely difficult process.
A cease-fire agreement aimed at stopping the battle for Syria's largest city long enough to evacuate civilians and rebel fighters has already collapsed, less than one full day after it was brokered in Ankara, Turkey, by Russian and Turkish officials.
It is unclear who broke the truce first. Moscow, which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, accused the rebels of rupturing the fragile peace, while the opposition said pro-Assad Shiite militias resumed their attacks on besieged districts of eastern Aleppo early Wednesday morning.
The militias, which are backed by Iran, halted the evacuation of the first group of civilians, a source within the opposition told Business Insider on Wednesday. The source said the militias demanded that injured Shiites in the villages of Foua and Kafraya in the rebel-held Idlib province — where the rebels and civilians were to be sent — be evacuated first.
The source said Iran had expressed fears that the Shiites would face retribution if Sunni Arab rebels were allowed to leave eastern Aleppo. But Osama Abo Zaid, a legal adviser to Aleppo's rebel groups, said Iran was being motivated by "exclusively sectarian and crippling" considerations.
"This is a total catastrophe," said Ammar Abogoda, the head of the Aleppo-based news channel Aleppo Today who also goes by Hakeem Haladi.
"The shelling has started heavily again, airplanes are in the sky dropping cluster bombs," he said via WhatsApp on Wednesday. "Russia and Syria signed on to the deal and it's collapsed now — all because of Iran."
"How on earth can we tell the American people that Iran is playing this game under the watch of our government?" Abogada, who is not in Aleppo but travels there regularly, said. "It's a total disaster. I can't even describe the situation down there."
Iran, a staunch ally of Assad that arms and funds the Shiite militias fighting on his behalf, reportedly felt blindsided by the terms of the truce brokered in Turkey between Russia and the rebels.
"Iran considers the Russian deal with opposition, facilitated by Turkey, a deal made without their knowledge and intended to sideline Iran," Syrian journalist Hadi Alabdallah tweeted Wednesday. "For this reason, Iran-backed militias [have] obstructed the evacuation of the injured since yesterday until now, highlighting Russia-Iran discord over Syria."
Further complicating the negotiations is the feeling that Russia, which turned the tide of the war when it launched an air campaign on behalf of Assad in October 2015, is quickly losing influence over Iran and the Assad regime itself — especially given the regime forces' broadly successful ground invasion of eastern Aleppo over the past month.
Russia has been trying to persuade the Assad regime to accept the conditions of the truce, a spokesman for the Aleppo-based rebel group Noureddine Zinki told The Guardian on Wednesday. But Iran, whose proxy militias wield considerable power on the ground in Aleppo, was unwilling to accept the terms of the deal, said Asaad Hanna, a political officer in the opposition Free Syrian Army.
"The Iranians have so far refused to accept the outcome of the talks, even as Russia accepted many requests made by the opposition," Hanna told Business Insider on Wednesday.
"Because the Russians don't have fighters in Aleppo, like the Iranians do through their proxies, they cannot apply the cease-fire deal on the ground, in practice," he added. "They have to deal with the Iranians because it's their militias who are controlling the checkpoints and largely directing the pro-Assad forces in Aleppo."
The opposition is still negotiating with the Russians in Ankara, Hanna said, but would not meet with the Iranians directly. Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, will meet with his Turkish and Russian counterparts in Ankara on Wednesday, however, to discuss the terms of the truce, according to Reuters.
Russia and Iran, both staunch allies of Assad, have broadly been on the same page in Syria throughout the war. Russia reportedly intervened in the conflict at the request of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in August 2015 to request Russia's help in bolstering Assad.
The newly fortified Russian-Iranian military alliance gave Putin more leverage and influence in the region in the short term and was therefore as beneficial to Moscow as it was to Tehran.
Now that Assad has essentially won his biggest victory of the more than five-year civil war, however, and is in control of Syria's major urban areas, he and his Iranian allies may not feel as indebted to — or dependent on — Russian airpower.
Still, Cliff Kupchan, an expert on Russia and Iran at the political risk firm Eurasia Group, said that tension between Russia and Iran should not be overstated and that it was most likely as much the Russians' fault as it was the Iranians' that the evacuation deal had not been implemented.
"The deal will be implemented at some point," Kupchan said. "But before they follow through on it, the Russians and Iranians are trying to maximize their leverage and concessions from the armed rebels. They're trying to see the rebels leave in as few numbers, and with the least amount of weapons, possible."
Indeed, Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, told reporters on Wednesday from Ankara that "Russia, Iran, forces supported by Iran, and the regime" were "trying to obstruct" the deal.
Chris Kozak, a research analyst focusing on Syria at the Institute for the Study of War, said that while the breakdown of the evacuation deal "does highlight the strategic divergences that exist between Iran and Russia," he didn't think the differences were as severe as many assume.
"Iran likely aims to have a seat at the table in the final resolution of Aleppo City more broadly given its contributions (in the forms of advisors and manpower) to the fight," Kozak said, "and may have decided to play spoiler in order to insert its interests into the bilateral negotiations between Russia and Turkey."
But at the end of the day, Kozak stressed, pro-government forces, including Russia and Iran, remain united behind their interest in preserving the Assad regime — "despite some divergences on the interim military and political priorities on the ground."
The US has been shut out of the Ankara talks, but the State Department said Wednesday it was aware of reports that implementation of the cease-fire and evacuation plan had failed "due to intense shelling on civilian neighborhoods in east Aleppo."
"We urge all parties involved to get a cessation of hostilities back on track, permit departures for all those who want to leave the city, and allow deliveries of humanitarian assistance to all in need," a State Department official told Business Insider on Wednesday.
"We strongly urge Russia, the Syrian regime, and Iran allow for UN monitoring as a safeguard against further atrocities," the official said. "The world is watching."
WASHINGTON (AP) — The top U.S. general leading the fight against the Islamic State group says the militants got control of military equipment and weapons, possibly including air defense equipment, when they recaptured the Syrian town of Palmyra.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend says Russian forces and the Syrian government took their eye off the ball and lost Palmyra and will likely try to take it back again. But if they don't, he says the U.S.-led coalition will launch strikes and kill IS there, particularly if he sees insurgents moving weapons out of the city.
He says the complicating factor is that it's difficult to tell Syrian government and Russian forces from Islamic State fighters there. He says the U.S. is staying out of it for now, giving Russia time to sort it out.
It's not quite Cold War II, but the collapse of U.S. military relations with Russia could prove to be one of the most consequential aspects of President Barack Obama's national security legacy while presenting an early test of Donald Trump's hope for friendly ties to Moscow.
Beyond the prospect of the two militaries accidentally brushing against each other in Europe or the Middle East, there is concern that a near-complete absence of military-to-military communication could enable a miscalculation or escalation leading to a nuclear confrontation.
The United States and Russia possess 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. Some are continuously on high alert.
While Secretary of State John Kerry and his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, kept up frequent contact with their Russian counterpart on Syria, Iran and other issues, the Pentagon and the Kremlin went largely silent on topics like nuclear risk reduction.
The Pentagon cut off most military-to-military contacts with Moscow in 2014 after Russia's annexation of Crimea and its incursions into eastern Ukraine, and the Russians ended longstanding cooperation with the U.S. on nuclear security. That left the relationship at a low ebb that worries some experts.
Former Sen. Sam Nunn, who heads a non-partisan group that advocates for measures to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict, warns that Washington and Moscow are in a "race between cooperation and catastrophe." Cooperation, he says, is losing.
"The dangers are growing," he said in a telephone interview. "Distrust between the U.S. and Russia, between NATO and Russia, is in a downward spiral."
The slide has quickened, and the repair perhaps made more difficult, by allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and the Pentagon's sharp criticism of the Russian military's role in Syria. Trump has held out hope of improving relations with his future counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, whom he has praised. But it's unclear what that portends for military ties.
Some of Trump's top administration picks, including Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, are seen as friendly toward Russia. But the president-elect's choice for defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, has expressed worry about Russia's intentions. In remarks to the Heritage Foundation in 2015, he said Russia wants to "break NATO apart."
Mattis may face some urgency in setting a new course for military ties with Russia, but some voices in the new administration may press for other early priorities, such as advancing the anti-Islamic State fight in Iraq.
The man Mattis would replace, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, is wrapping up a world tour this week, but did not visit Moscow. In fact, he has not been there during his nearly two years in office. His two immediate predecessors, Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta, never made it to Moscow, either. The last defense secretary to visit Moscow was Obama's first, Robert Gates, in 2011.
During the Gates period, the biggest sticking point in relations with Russia was Moscow's unbending opposition to U.S. plans to deploy missile defenses in Europe, which the Russians view as provocative and a potential military threat.
Since then, contention has grown in multiple directions, including Russian military moves in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and its military support for the Bashar Assad government in Syria.
The U.S. also asserts that Moscow is violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty by developing a ground-launched cruise missile - a charge the Russians deny while making their own claims of American treaty violations. Carter has accused Russia of engaging in "nuclear saber-rattling" that he says calls into question their respect for norms against nuclear use.
In a report released this week by Nunn's group, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the stakes are described in stark terms.
"Russia and the West are at a dangerous crossroads," the report says. "During the past several years, we have been in a state of escalating tension, trapped in a downward spiral of antagonism and distrust."
The report recommends steps to reduce the likelihood of accident or miscalculation leading to a nuclear exchange, which it says is "now higher than any period since the end of the Cold War" in 1991. Even during the darkest periods of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow pursued negotiations aimed at controlling nuclear risk. Today there are no active U.S.-Russia arms control talks and none are on the horizon.
The report says this "national security malpractice" must change.
The report is based on the group's consultations with defense and security experts from the U.S., Russia and Europe, including Andrew Futter, a nuclear weapons and missile defense expert at Britain's University of Leicester, and Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow think tank. Among the recommendations:
—Require all Russian and NATO military aircraft to fly with their transponders turned on to make it easier to identify aircraft flying over sensitive areas like the Baltic Sea and the Nordic region.
—Restore U.S. and NATO military-to-military communication, suspended in 2014.
—Exclude nuclear-capable forces from military exercises.
—Issue presidential declarations in Moscow and Washington reaffirming that "nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought," a phrase used by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone on Wednesday with his Russian, Turkish and Qatari counterparts, stressing the need to continue seeking a ceasefire for the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo and the resumption of political talks to end the war.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Kerry spoke to the three foreign ministers after a ceasefire brokered on Tuesday by Russia and Turkey failed to take effect and fighting resumed.
"In all of these conversations, the secretary has stressed the need to continue to try to stop the bloodshed and violence with a meaningful ceasefire," Kirby told a briefing, adding that "whatever was announced yesterday obviously didn't survive very long due to the regime."
A cease-fire agreement aimed at stopping the battle for Syria's largest city long enough to evacuate civilians and rebel fighters collapsed less than one day after it was brokered in Ankara by Russian and Turkish officials.
The deal was reinstated by Wednesday night, Syrian rebels announced, but not before Iran introduced new conditions on the truce as its proxy militias resumed their attacks on the rebel-held east.
Whether the evacuation takes place or not, though, Aleppo has effectively fallen to Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies.
"The fall of opposition forces is largely inevitable, whether evacuated or destroyed by military force," said Chris Kozak, an expert on Syria at the Institute for the Study of War.
Still, as Assad said in a recent interview, the fall of Aleppo "won't mean the end of the war."
The fear now, analysts say, is that the violence will become increasingly sectarian as Iraqi Shiite militiamen assembled by Iran seek revenge on Sunni Arab rebels and civilians who are either trapped in, or trying to flee from, Aleppo.
A big concern is that the militiamen will "go through ruined east Aleppo with a fine-toothed comb, murdering, looting, and pillaging from one neighborhood to the next," said Fred Hof, the director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East who served as special adviser for transition in Syria to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012.
Reports emerged on Monday that Shiite militias and Syrian army soldiers were executing injured and fleeing civilians as they cleared rebel-held areas of the city.
"Washington is pleading with Moscow to prevent the worst from happening, but it does so with no leverage and no 'or else,'" Hof told Business Insider on Wednesday. "Those who have slaughtered civilians and who continue to do so have enjoyed, courtesy of the West, a free ride."
The evacuation of rebels and civilians from eastern Aleppo could therefore alleviate short-term suffering. But many of those forced to leave perceive the displacement — and, in many cases, the mandatory conscription — as a form of ethnic cleansing.
"Displacing or detaining populations has become business as usual in areas retaken by the regime," Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote in The New York Times on Tuesday.
The "cleansing," Itani said, reflect a pattern used by the Assad regime to clear areas once controlled by the opposition.
"It is sometimes called the 'green bus' strategy after the vehicles used to transport the displaced," he wrote.
'Foreshadowing something far worse to come'
It is unlikely that the roughly 7,000 fighters inside Aleppo will give up on the revolution once they are evacuated from the city. About 40,000 fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army are still fighting the regime outside of Aleppo, along with about 30,000 in southern Syria, and several thousand in the suburbs of Damascus and Idlib.
Abdul Hadi Sari, a former air force general and commander in the Southern Front forces, told the Christian Science Monitor that his forces are preparing for an "underground, insurgency phase — a popular resistance — against the regime, its allies, and their interests."
In other words, while recapturing Aleppo would leave Assad with firm control over Syria's major urban centers — including Damascus and Homs — opposition forces still control large parts of northwestern and southern Syria.
From there, they could become an insurgency, as Sari suggested, or join the anti-ISIS fight led by the US, Turkey, and Jordan.
Because foreign actors such as the US, Turkey, and the Gulf states have little leverage in Idlib and around Damascus, however, the regime can operate there "with impunity," said Syrian journalist and Middle East analyst Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
"The areas in Syria in which the regime can operate at this point without having to face foreign countries are mostly Idlib and rural Damascus," Hassan, coauthor of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, told Business Insider on Wednesday. "This sounds to me like the beginning of a new dynamic in the Syrian conflict, which happens to be just as a new administration comes to Washington."
Alternatively, the rebel forces could radicalize.
"There are some individuals that are drawn to Al Qaeda because they are disappointed with the West and American policy in Syria," Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the CS Monitor. "If they want to continue the fight, they will join Al Qaeda."
Either way, the fall of Aleppo is "foreshadowing something far worse to come," Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official under George W. Bush, said during a conference call with reporters hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative on Wednesday.
Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the US-led anti-ISIS operation in Syria, said in a press conference Wednesday that he expects that most of the actors in Aleppo "probably have other ideas about what they’re going to do next," and that the fall of Aleppo will likely be "a complicator" for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. But he said he doesn't think it will have a huge effect on the coalition's anti-ISIS efforts in the rest of the country.
Rubin, however, said that Aleppo's fall has consolidated the Assad regime's power, which is the "greatest recruiting tool that ISIS has ever had."
Hof predicted that aerial attacks by Russia and the regime on civilian neighborhoods in Idlib will continue, and that pro-government forces could launch a ground offensive in the direction of Raqqa, the Islamic State's de facto capital in Syria.
"Attacking Raqqa would enable the Russians to say they are actually fighting ISIS," Hof said. "They would also be able to sweep away the anti-ISIS coalition’s efforts and restore Assad rule in Raqqa: misrule that made Syria safe for ISIS in the first place."
Syrian rebels: Deal to evacuate fighters, civilians from eastern Aleppo is back on, implementation to begin within hours.
ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) - An evacuation of rebel-held areas of Aleppo was back on track on Thursday despite clashes overnight, Syrian opposition groups and a military media unit run by the government's ally Hezbollah said.
The first convoy of people requiring medical attention has started to leave rebel-held east Aleppo, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Preparations have also begun to take militants from east Aleppo out of the city in the direction of Khan Touman in the southwest, Hezbollah media reported.
A Syrian official source told Reuters early on Thursday that the operation to organize the departure of fighters from east Aleppo had begun and the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had been asked to assist with the evacuation.
Overnight contacts between the parties succeeded in reviving a ceasefire that had originally come into effect late on Tuesday before breaking down, Hezbollah's media unit said.
An official from the Jabha Shamiya rebel group said the new truce came into effect at 2.30am (0030GMT) on Thursday and a Reuters reporter in Aleppo said no fighting had been heard in the city since the early hours of the morning.
Such an exodus would end years of fighting for the city and mark a major victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. An initial deal stalled on Wednesday, the planned evacuation failed to materialize and renewed fighting raged in the city.
Iran, one of Assad's main backers, had imposed new conditions, saying it wanted the simultaneous evacuation of wounded from two villages besieged by rebels, according to rebel and U.N. sources.
Rebel officials said late on Wednesday that they had agreed to an evacuation of the wounded from those Shi'ite villages in Idlib province, and that the Aleppo deal would go ahead as planned.
"Within the coming hours its implementation will begin," said Abdul Salam Abdul Razak, a military spokesman for the Nour al-Din al Zinki rebel group.
It was not immediately clear how a deal had been reached, and late on Wednesday it was thrown into doubt by the military media unit run by Hezbollah, an armed Shi'ite group backed by Iran and an ally of the Damascus government.
"The negotiations are seeing big complications, in light of tension and operations on the front lines," it said. Fighting had raged in the night on the southern outskirts of Aleppo, where rebel groups outside the city clashed with pro-government forces.
The original ceasefire was brokered by Russia, Assad's most powerful ally, and opposition backer Turkey on Tuesday. But the planned evacuation of rebel-held areas did not happen and instead shelling and gunfire erupted in the city on Wednesday, with Turkey accusing government forces of breaking the truce.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, said the bombardment by Syrian government forces and their allies "most likely constitutes war crimes".
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin agreed in a phone call on Wednesday to make a joint effort to start the process, Turkish presidential sources said.
Shortly before the new deal was announced, clashes raged in Aleppo.
Government forces made a new advance in Sukkari - one of a handful of districts still held by rebels - and brought half of the neighborhood under their control, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group. Rebels said they attacked government forces with suicide car bombs.
The Russian defense ministry said - before the report of the government forces' advance in Sukkari - that the rebels controlled an enclave of only 2.5 square km (1 square mile).
The evacuation plan was the culmination of two weeks of rapid advances by the Syrian army and its allies that drove insurgents back into an ever-smaller pocket of the city under intense air strikes and artillery fire.
By taking control of Aleppo, Assad has proved the power of his military coalition, aided by Russia's air force and an array of Shi'ite militias from across the region.
Rebels have been supported by the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies, but that support has fallen far short of the direct military backing given to Assad by Russia and Iran.
Russia's decision to deploy its air force to Syria 18 months ago turned the war in Assad's favor after rebel advances across western Syria. In addition to Aleppo, he has won back insurgent strongholds near Damascus this year.
The government and its allies have focused the bulk of their firepower on fighting rebels in western Syria rather than Islamic State, which this week managed to take back the ancient city of Palmyra, once again illustrating the challenge Assad faces reestablishing control over all Syria.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam in Aleppo and Tom Perry, John Davison and Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Giles Elgood)
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Pro-Syrian government fighters opened fire on a convoy as it prepared to leave rebel-held eastern Aleppo on Thursday in the first part of an evacuation from the area, wounding three people, the head of the ambulance service in the district said.
"The convoy was shot at by regime forces and we have three injured, one of them from civil defense ... They were brought back to besieged areas," Ahmed Sweid told the pro-opposition Orient TV.
Orient TV also said a first group of wounded people had reached the Ramousah area on their way out of eastern Aleppo.
An official with an Aleppo rebel group said the first convoy had crossed out of the eastern district, but later said it was only half way along the road out of the besieged rebel enclave where it had stopped.
A Reuters witness in nearby government-held territory heard a burst of gunfire that lasted several minutes.
Aleppo (Syria) (AFP) - After Mohammed Walo's Aleppo neighbourhood was recaptured by Syria's army, he crossed into the well-stocked government-held west for groceries. On the way back, he was stopped at a checkpoint and conscripted.
"I was passing through an army checkpoint, and on my way back, they told me I was wanted for the army reserves," Walo told AFP.
It was the first time the 35-year-old technician had left his Haluk neighbourhood since rebel groups overran it four years ago.
"I have to come back to serve in the army for my son who is very dear to my heart, so that he can inherit a country that isn't in ruins," Walo said, with tears in his pale green eyes.
He is one of hundreds of men who have been swept up to perform their compulsory service or enter the army reserves since the government began recapturing territory in east Aleppo from rebels.
After a month-long assault, Syria's army and allied militias are closing in on the shrinking enclave still held by rebels, with tens of thousands of residents streaming into government-controlled zones.
The flows have boosted Syria's army reserves, according to General Habib Safi, who runs the military police station where Walo and more than 200 other new conscripts are being debriefed.
In Syria, males above 18 years of age are required to complete up to two years of military service, after which they are automatically enlisted in the army reserves.
Exemptions are issued for students, males who are the only child, sole breadwinners for families, and anyone with handicaps.
The army's 300,000-strong pre-war force has been halved by deaths, defections and draft-dodging.
President Bashar al-Assad, in an interview Wednesday, said it was "obvious the Syrian army is not to be as strong as it was before. But what we have is determination to defend our country. This is the most important thing."
Gesturing to the new conscripts in west Aleppo's Feid district, Safi said: "The displacement is providing the army with groups of men. This is just part of those that are here."
Around 700 men had been recruited into the armed forces since the escalation in Aleppo, "and the number is growing", the general said.
As families exit east Aleppo into regime-controlled territory, men undergo background checks to identify anyone wanted for draft-dodging, desertion or any other violations.
Any person eligible then spends a week at government "collection centres" while the recruitment process is finalised.
"We monitor his inclinations and his competencies, as well as his allegiance to his homeland. When this is genuine, he is immediately admitted into the ranks of the armed forces."
The United Nations has raised concerns that hundreds of Syrian men may have gone missing after heading from east Aleppo into government-controlled zones.
The UN's Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said it had reports of "enforced disappearances and forced conscription", with men of military age appearing to be most at risk.
New recruits who spoke to AFP near Syrian security officials said they were being treated well, including Mohammed Ali, 19, who told AFP he fled eastern Aleppo last Saturday.
"I knew that I still had to do my military service, but I was too scared. After witnessing the clashes, I decided to hand myself in," the young man said.
"I never carried arms (against the government). I just sold water from a cistern fixed on top of my car."
Ahmad al-Qassem, 23, told AFP he was forced to join a rebel group in Aleppo under threat of torture, and that he was taught to fear Syrian regime forces for many years.
"They told me, 'They will kill you.' But I saw on television that a lot of people were getting their status regularised," he said.
He and other men from his neighbourhood handed themselves in to the army earlier this week, and he hasn't seen his family since.
Outside the police station, dozens of people -- mostly women and children -- waited impatiently to see their recently-recruited relatives inside.
"I'm waiting to see my son Ahmad, who's inside the centre," said Iftikhar, 45, who left the Tariq al-Bab district of east Aleppo two weeks ago.
"We didn't know that he had to go into the reserves," she said, pulling her black headscarf tighter around her in the December cold.
"God protect him."
Amin Derzi, 50, came to the station to check on his son, who was detained when the family left the Salhin district several days ago.
Derzi's 27-year-old son was wounded two years ago in a rocket attack that left him without fingers on one hand.
"We got him treated, but it wasn't enough... I haven't seen him since yesterday, and I want to check on him and give him his medication," he said.
SEE ALSO: Here's how the war in Syria unfolded
ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT — Ambulances trying to evacuate people from rebel-held eastern Aleppo on Thursday came under fire from fighters loyal to the Syrian government, who killed at least one person, a rescue service spokesman said.
But other buses and ambulances later started moving into rebel-held areas of the city under a deal to evacuate civilians and fighters following rapid advances by government forces, while the Russian defense ministry said the evacuation of 5,000 rebels and their family members had begun.
The evacuation of Aleppo's last rebel enclave would end years of fighting for the city and mark a major victory for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"(Pro-government fighters) fired at us and at ambulance vehicles and those people opening up the road," the rescue service spokesman told Reuters, adding that one person was killed.
A Reuters witness in nearby government-held territory heard a burst of gunfire that lasted several minutes.
An official with an Aleppo rebel group said the medical convoy had stopped before clearing the besieged eastern part of the city.
Another group of ambulances, and more than 20 buses, began to move toward the rebel-held area of Aleppo.
"Thousands of people are in need of evacuation, but the first and most urgent thing is wounded, sick, and children, including orphans," Jan Egeland, the UN humanitarian adviser for Syria, said.
A Reuters witness in government-held territory said columns of black smoke could be seen rising from rebel-held area.
Residents hoping to be taken out have been burning personal belongings they cannot take with them. "Outside every building you see a small fire, papers, women's clothes," one resident told Reuters.
Russian soldiers were preparing to lead rebels out of Aleppo, the defense ministry in Moscow said. Syria had guaranteed the safety of rebels and their families, who would be taken toward Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria.
Russia would use drones to monitor how rebels and their families were transported on 20 buses, accompanied by 10 ambulances, along a humanitarian corridor, the ministry said.
A truce brokered by Russia, Assad's most powerful ally, and opposition backer Turkey on Tuesday broke down following renewed fighting on Wednesday, and the evacuation did not take place then as planned.
An official from the Jabha Shamiya rebel group said a new truce came into effect at 2:30 a.m. (12:30 a.m. GMT, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday ET) on Thursday.
Shortly before the new deal was announced, clashes raged in Aleppo.
Government forces made a new advance in Sukkari — one of a handful of districts still held by rebels — and brought half of the neighborhood under their control, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.
The Russian defense ministry said — before the report of the government forces' advance in Sukkari — that the rebels controlled an enclave of only 1 square mile.
The evacuation plan was the culmination of two weeks of rapid advances by the Syrian army and its allies that drove insurgents back into an ever-smaller pocket of the city under intense airstrikes and artillery fire.
By taking control of Aleppo, Assad has proved the power of his military coalition, aided by Russia's air force and an array of Shi'ite militias from across the region.
Rebels have been backed by the US, Turkey, and Gulf monarchies, but that support has fallen far short of the direct military assistance given to Assad by Russia and Iran.
Russia's decision to deploy its air force to Syria 18 months ago turned the war in Assad's favor after rebel advances across western Syria. In addition to Aleppo, he has won back insurgent strongholds near Damascus this year.
The government and its allies have focused the bulk of their firepower on fighting rebels in western Syria rather than the Islamic State, which this week managed to take back the ancient city of Palmyra, once again illustrating the challenge Assad faces reestablishing control over all Syria.
Carla del Ponte, a United Nations investigator and former UN war crimes prosecutor, told the German newspaper Die Zeit that Russian and Syrian bombing of homes, hospitals, and schools amounted to war crimes, as did the starving out of parts of Aleppo for months by militias loyal to the government.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam in Aleppo and Tom Perry, John Davison and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Michelle Martin in Berlin; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Giles Elgood)
Moscow (AFP) - When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the Kremlin's bombing campaign in Syria last year to back up leader Bashar al-Assad, the regime's forces were being pushed back.
Now Damascus is celebrating its biggest victory in over five years of war after recapturing control of the rebel bastion in the east of the city and dealing a hammer blow to those looking to oust Assad.
Here's how Russia helped break the stalemate:
Turning the tables
Russian warplanes played a central role in bludgeoning rebel-held parts of Aleppo towards defeat with a brutal campaign that stirred memories of Putin's destruction of the Chechen capital Grozny in 1999-2000.
Although Assad's opponents finally gave up after Moscow said it halted air strikes on the city in October, Russia's bombers had already pulverised rebel defences for months, allowing the Syrian leader's forces to tighten their siege.
"Without Russia, nothing would have happened with Aleppo," said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Everything was focused on Aleppo."
While Moscow insists its troops are not fighting on the frontlines, it admits it has military advisors on the ground supporting Assad's forces.
Malashenko said Russian advisors had played their role in helping the ground operation, noting that the death of a Russian army tank commander in Aleppo suggested Moscow might have drafted in some of its big guns to help out.
In addition to helping turn the tide militarily, Russia's presence also made sure of one thing: there would be no intervention from the West in Aleppo -- despite an outcry over the bloodshed.
As the operation intensified, Moscow demonstratively bolstered its hi-tech air defences in the skies over Syria and sent more warships -- including its only aircraft carrier -- to patrol the shores off the war-torn country.
A pyrrhic victory?
For the Kremlin, victory in Aleppo can be seen as a stunning triumph to crown Moscow's first intervention outside the former Soviet region since the disastrous Afghanistan campaign.
Russia has helped thrust Assad into a position of strength while breaking the back of more moderate rebels groups supported by Washington and its allies.
Putin now appears the undisputed kingmaker in Syria and a key player across the entire Middle East. And he cut the US and Europe out of the loop on Aleppo by dealing directly with Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But the ferocious bombardment of Aleppo saw the West levelling accusations of war crimes that clearly stung the Kremlin and further strained its fragile ties with the West.
That was a blow for what many saw as one of the major initial aims of Putin's intervention in Syria: trying to ease his isolation over the Ukraine crisis.
"The main goal of the operation has been to force the West to speak to Putin," independent military expert Alexander Golts said.
"The situation has come full circle: Russia is now isolated because of the victory in Syria."
Blistering international criticism did eventually see Russia claim to halt its Aleppo strikes in October in the move the Kremlin called a "manifestation of goodwill".
But the damage was done and any chance of pushing the US to coordinate forces in Syria evaporated.
On the military side, the show of strength in Aleppo did not always go smoothly.
Moscow's ageing Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier suffered two embarrassing mishaps within a month with two jets ending up in the drink.
Just as Russia was about to hail the fall of Aleppo, bad news emerged from elsewhere.
As Assad's troops focused Syria's second city, Islamic State group jihadists seized back control of the ancient city of Palmyra eight months after Damascus and Moscow retook it.
The loss was both a major blow for Putin -- for whom the capture of the World Heritage site had been a major propaganda coup -- and a potentially worrying sign of things to come.
The shock IS advance highlighted how tough Assad's forces will find it to keep a lid on areas they control -- and showed that Syria's protracted war is still far from over.
"With Palmyra captured for a second time, it's difficult to imagine that Aleppo will instantly turn into a peaceful city," Malashenko said.
"This big city will need to be controlled and there will need to be a huge Syrian army contingent with permanent Russian support."
The defeat of the rebels in Aleppo has so far not been accompanied by any progress towards a negotiated end to the conflict.
An emboldened Assad may now prove even more difficult for Moscow to bring to the table, which could hamper any efforts to scale back Russian operations there.
Key for the Kremlin will be how US President-elect Donald Trump approaches the Syria conflict when he takes power in January.
With the capture of Aleppo now a fait accompli, Putin and Assad may be hoping Trump stays true to his word and prioritises cooperation against IS over all else.