By Michael Cruickshank, @MJ_Cruickshank
A recent regime offensive around Aleppo has trapped tens of thousands of civilians and many rebel fighters within the eastern part of Syria’s largest city.
Today marks the beginning of the siege Eastern Aleppo. While the main supply route into the rebel-held areas of the city – the Castillo Road – had been cut several weeks ago, rebel groups still held a thin sliver of land connecting them with the Aleppo countryside and Idlib province. Now however, following an advance by the Kurdish YPG, also hostile to the rebels, Eastern Aleppo is completely cut off from the rest of the country.
While the YPG perhaps only accelerated the inevitable, their advance has nonetheless trapped a large number of civilians within the city. UN estimates put the number of civilians that were residing in this area at around 300,000 however more recent estimates by journalists who have visited the region put the current number at little more than 40,000. This large-scale depopulation was driven not just by the threat of besiegement, but also near-daily barrel bomb attacks and airstrikes, inflicting tens of thousands of casualties.
Unfortunately, there is still a significant number of civilians within these newly-besieged areas. Unlike other besieged portions of Syria (such as East Ghouta) the rebel-held pocket in Eastern Aleppo contains little to no open land that can be used for agriculture. This means that those trapped could begin to experience the effects of starvation in a matter of weeks. Indeed it is likely the strategy of the regime and its allies (Hezbollah, IRCG and other Shia militias) to attempt to ‘starve out’ the rebels still holding positions within the city. Such tactics have already seen success in other areas of Syria including Homs.
Eastern Aleppo, as part of Syria’s largest city, is a highly strategic battlefield for both sides. Through maintaining possession of this area, the rebels have continued to show that they can contest major population centers in the country. Should they lose it (as now seems likely) the existential threat which they pose to the Syrian Government will be significantly diminished. Moreover, the loss of Eastern Aleppo would see the Syrian rebels being localized to Idlib Province and parts of the country’s south.
The long term strategic concerns however, will play second fiddle to the immediate humanitarian suffering within Aleppo. Unless some sort of negotiated ceasefire is agreed to, the coming months will see an increasingly deadly endgame, both for the remaining rebel fighters, and for civilians.
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