Editor’s Note: Senior International Correspondent Clarissa Ward has reported from the front lines in Syria 12 times in the past four years.
Syrian and Russian forces are to open humanitarian corridors for people to flee Aleppo, the day after Syria’s army announced that it had encircled the besieged city – cutting off supply lines and creating relief sites to distribute food and medicine to civilians.
But what does the relief operation mean for the desperate citizens of Aleppo and the future of the city?
The Russians and Syrian government forces have been pounding Aleppo relentlessly for months now in an effort to take back the eastern part of the city which has been in rebel hands for nearly four years.
Aleppo has seen many of its neighborhoods come under fire for 80 consecutive days, with more than 6,000 people – mainly civilians – killed or injured. Four hospitals have been hit. Rebel fighters have been hitting back with artillery and bombings but they simply can’t match the firepower that government forces have since the Russian intervention.
Why are the latest development such a big deal?
Aleppo is the country’s largest city and a vital economic hub. When rebels first launched their attack on the city in July 2012, it sent shock waves through government-held parts of Aleppo. Regime strongholds were no longer seen as impenetrable.
People began speculating that the downfall of President Bashar al Assad was imminent. For rebel forces it was a jubilant moment. They have since invested huge amounts of resources and blood in holding onto their hard fought gains. To lose that now would be devastating symbolically. It would send a signal that President Assad has reclaimed his hold over the country and that the rebel movement is on its last legs.
What do we know about how many people are still there?
There are an estimated 200,000-300,000 people still inside rebel-held Aleppo, though exact numbers are very tough to come by. Many of them are elderly people who are too sick or too stubborn to leave. Living conditions are extremely tough. Entire neighborhoods have been reduced to apocalyptic wastelands.
Basic services like running water and electricity are sporadic. Prices have soared because of the difficulty of getting in food and aid. The World Food Programme says the food security situation in Aleppo is extremely fluid with the crisis severely disrupting supply routes. It says the cost of rice has increased by 32% in three months and by 142% from a year ago.
And with the entire area now under siege, food and diesel shortages are likely imminent. That diesel is needed to power generators and those generators are needed to power hospitals.
What would surrender look like for those still inside?
Fliers have been raining down on rebel-held areas, offering amnesty to those who turn themselves into government forces and encouraging people to leave in the next 3 months. But for most of the people I have spoken to, surrender is not an option. Those who have stayed this long, who have endured bombardment day in and day out, have made a conscience decision to stay.
I interviewed one elderly woman in the rebel-held Suqquri neighborhood back in February. She told me that she plans to stay in Aleppo until she dies because it is her home. There are others who have stayed because they simply don’t have the means to leave, but surrender is still not an option for most.
There have been numerous instances where the government has offered amnesty to people living in rebel-held areas. Typically, when people surrender, the men are separated from the women and children and the men are taken away, never to be heard from again. So while you may see some women and children and perhaps some elderly people turning themselves in to government forces, it is highly unlikely that many men will do the same.
Is there much of Aleppo left after five years of war?
The heart of Aleppo has been ravaged by Syria’s civil war. From the ancient citadel to the bustling souk, there is little left of the historic, beautiful city that was once visited by tourists from all over the world.
Entire city blocks have been flattened by round-the-clock aerial bombardment. The buildings that are left are pockmarked with shrapnel and bullet holes. Government-held areas are certainly in better shape than rebel-held areas.
It can be surreal to watch people celebrate a wedding party in a luxury hotel in one part of town, while just a mile away, the streets are desolate and dark with people hunkered down in basements to escape bombing raids.
When and if the Syrian civil war finally comes to an end, it will hopefully be possible to rebuild some of Aleppo’s most beloved monuments and historic sites.
But the vibrant soul of the city has been decimated. And that cannot be replaced.