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Thursday 28 September 2023 Dublin: 15°C
# Aleppo Explainer
A city destroyed: What you need to know about Aleppo
Aleppo in Syria is under heavy attack by government forces. What does this mean for the rebels and the civilians inside?

Turkey Syria AP / Press Association Images A Syrian child waits to return to his country with members of his family at the Turkish border crossing with Syria AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

NEWS THIS WEEK of a potential ceasefire in the Syrian Civil War was met with approval from the international community.

On Friday, world powers agreed to a ‘cessation of all hostilities’ to begin within a week’s time.

However, before this was announced, Aleppo in northern Syria had been making international headlines all week.

Here, we take a look at what’s going on there? Why is it significant? Who are the key players and what does this mean for the wider Syrian conflict as well as nearby Turkey and Europe?

The Syrian province and city has been the centre of a struggle between rebels and government forces for the past four years, as both try to gain control of the once prosperous area.

The province of Aleppo has been a rebel stronghold for the past number of years. Last week, the Syrian Government, backed by Russian air bombardment and a number of other key players, launched a massive assault on the northern province.

Why is Aleppo important?

The city of Aleppo is the capital city of the northern Aleppo province. It is the ‘second city’ of Syria (after Damascus), and its old city district (which has been mostly destroyed in the war) is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Before the civil war started, it was called the commercial capital of Syria.

For 18 months after the beginning of the civil war, Aleppo managed to avoid the conflict which had engulfed the rest of Syria since it began in March 2011.

However, in July 2012, fighting broke out there between the rebel groups and the forces of president Bashar al-Assad.

Mideast Syria Uprising Anniversary Q and A Associated Press A building destroyed by an airstrike in Aleppo Associated Press

Since then, the city has been subjected to intense battles, with government forces controlling the western half of the city and the rebels controlling the east.

The city and surrounding towns had long-been a stronghold for more moderate Syrian rebels supported by Turkey, as well as Kurdish militia groups and some more extreme armed groups.

Militants from the Islamic State group used to control several neighborhoods in Aleppo, but they were forced out by other rebels in early 2014.

The city is close to Turkey, which is sympathetic to the rebels. This has enabled rebels to receive much-needed supplies from across the Turkish border. This, as well as its status as the second capital of Syria, make it a key position to hold.

Why is Aleppo in the news again?

On Monday, 1 February Syrian government forces, strongly backed by Russian air-strikes, Iranian forces and other militias, launched a major offensive on the northern province, sending tens of thousands of people fleeing for the nearby Turkish border and seriously impacting the wider civil-war.

By that Saturday, the rebels’ main supply route into Aleppo city was cut off by government forces, leaving those left in inside virtually surrounded and isolated from any support.

Rebel opposition forces and some 350,000 civilians inside Aleppo city now face the prospect of a government siege, a tactic that has been employed to devastating effect against other former rebel strongholds.

Mideast Syria Associated Press The city of Homs that was re-taken by government forces in 2014 after a lengthy siege Associated Press

Russia entered the conflict on the side of the government in September. Since then it has helped government forces recapture territory and has backed ground movements by Assad’s forces.

Russia has been criticised by the United States and others for focussing attacks on the more moderate Syrian rebels instead of Islamic State. Now, it would seem as though the combined might of both forces is working.

In a series of reports from the frontline, international medical organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), condemned the pro-government bombing campaign.

The organisation said that in the smaller city of Azaz, just north of Aleppo, the health system is close to collapse, as tens of thousands flee towards the border with Turkey.

MSF is also warning that relief agencies will not be able to handle the increase in displaced people.

“The camps have no capacity to take in new arrivals,” said Muskilda Zancada, MSF Head of Mission in Syria.

There is a risk that people, including young children and the elderly, could be stuck living in the open in freezing conditions, for several days at least. We expect that there could be severe health effects, and pneumonia is a big concern.

Recently Turkey have also started a bombing campaign against the Kurdish YPG in Aleppo.

What does this mean for Syria?

Many commenters believe that the government turnaround in Aleppo could be the turning point in the civil war, with reports that it could be the greatest victory for government forces since the conflict began.

With their main supply route with sympathetic Turkey cut off, and their base effectively surrounded, the rebels are staring down a long and gruelling defeat.

With Aleppo under its control, the Syrian government will consolidate its grip on the west coast of Syria – by far the more economically powerful area of the country.

Islamic State will still control large swathes to the north and east, but for the more moderate rebels – backed by the US and Europe – this could spell the end.

“The trajectory for the rebels is downwards, and the downward slope is increasingly steep,” Emile Hokayem, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told AFP.

What will this mean for Europe?

As the campaign in Aleppo province began, tens of thousands of civilians fled from their homes and began to amass on the Turkish border. At least 50,000 people are now thought to have fled their homes since 1 February, with over 500 people dead.

Syria Turkey Associated Press A Syrian man tries to stay warm with a fire at a camp near the Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey, Associated Press

Turkey has always maintained that it has an open-border policy for people fleeing the conflict, but has kept its doors closed as it attempted to figure what the do with the new refugees.

While Friday’s announcement of the cessation of hostilities was welcomed, cracks are already beginning to show in the plan, with Bashar al-Assad swearing to retake all of Syria with his campaign – including areas controlled by the Islamic State.

MSF has welcomed news of the ceasefire, but said that much had to be done for the people suffering in Syria.

“Any agreement to provide more humanitarian assistance is desperately needed. Syrians living under bombs and in fear need to see the agreement move from paper to reality,” said Jane-Ann McKenna, Director of MSF in Ireland.

As the battle rages in Aleppo, it is triggering another great movement of people in the direction of Europe, which took in over 500,000 Syrians last year.

Greece is already overwhelmed with refugees coming in from Turkey. And a number of EU countries have openly baulked at the idea of taking in more people.

As the push continues from Syria, only time will tell what course of action Bashar al-Assad’s and Russia’s forces will take now that they’ve surrounded Aleppo.

Either way, this shift in the battle of Aleppo will have a huge effect on the course of the civil-war, as well as on the fate of Syria more generally.

With reporting from AP and AFP

Read: UN: More than one million refugees have entered Europe in 2015

Read: Tens of thousands flee for Turkish border amid Russia-backed onslaught on Aleppo

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