Syrian regime says it has taken full control of Aleppo

Updated 4:34 AM EST, Fri December 23, 2016

Story highlights

NEW: Situation a "race against the clock" to provide evacuees shelter, warmth

NEW: Last civilian evacuees have left eastern Aleppo

Syrian regime now has control of the country's four major cities

CNN —  

The Syrian regime says it has taken full control of Aleppo, state-run media announced Thursday, marking a major turning point in the country’s five-year civil war.

Government forces and their allies now control eastern Aleppo, ending more than four years of rebel rule there.

The battle came from both the ground and sky. President Bashar al-Assad’s troops and supporting militias entered eastern Aleppo by ground in late November. The regime and Russia – its most powerful ally – decimated neighborhoods with airstrikes, leaving scorched earth where a bustling metropolis once stood.

The government already controls western Aleppo. Now, regime control of the east spells the end of the rebels’ last urban stronghold, returning putting the government back in control of the country’s four major cities and making an opposition government less likely.

It’s a major setback for those who have long sought an end to four decades of Assad family rule.

Assad on Thursday called the takeover a “liberation” from terrorists, referring to rebel fighters. For those who survived the yearslong siege, the takeover means a cessation of the near-daily barrage of airstrikes, explosive barrels, artillery, cluster bombs, bunker-busters and bombs loaded with chlorine gas. No one was impervious to the attacks. In many cases, civilians and children were among the thousands killed.

Now begins a new chapter in Syria’s humanitarian crisis. Those who remain in the city fear reprisals from Assad forces. The last 35,000 civilians and rebels were evacuated from east Aleppo on Thursday, according to the United Nations, which is monitoring evacuations.

They join hundreds of thousands already evacuated to hospitals, homes and shelters. Most of them went to rebel-held areas in the countryside, raising concerns over how to ensure humanitarian aid will reach them and how to prevent those areas from becoming what one UN envoy called “the next Aleppo.”

Others were sent to Turkey, including 7-year-old Bana Alabed, who became a prominent civilian voice through Twitter.

Very few chose to go to western Aleppo, said Jan Egeland, UN senior adviser on Syria.

“It is a race against the clock and against the winter to provide shelter, warmth and relief to people who are sick, exhausted, and malnourished from five years of war,” Egeland said.

How did this all begin?

In 2011, Assad’s forces launched a violent crackdown on activists who were demanding more economic prosperity, political freedom and civil liberties.

The move sparked a nationwide uprising and opposition members took up arms. Members of the military joined the cause, defecting and becoming rebels.