Syria's biggest city appears set to fall back into Assad's hands

BEIRUT -- Syrian government forces and their allies captured a major eastern Aleppo neighborhood and several smaller areas Monday, putting much of the northern part of Aleppo’s besieged rebel-held areas under government control, state media reported.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said the areas captured by Syrian government troops include 10 neighborhoods and over 3,000 buildings. The ministry said in a statement that more than 100 rebels have laid down their arms and exited the Syrian city’s eastern suburbs.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and former commercial center, has been contested since the summer of 2012 and a complete rebel defeat in the city would be a turning point in the five-year conflict. If Syrian forces capture all of east Aleppo, President Bashar Assad’s government will be in control of the country’s four largest cities as well as the coastal region.

That result seemed increasingly likely Monday, after 13 days of heavy bombardment and intense street fighting left the rebels’ defenses in eastern Aleppo crumbling.

The opposition forces have now lost almost all of the northern part of the city, with the exception of the Sheikh Kheder neighborhood, where heavy clashes were reported Monday between rebels and advancing Syrian army forces.

The Syrian military announced Monday that troops had recaptured the al-Sakhour district, effectively splitting rebel-held eastern districts into two parts, north and south. 

According to activist and monitoring groups, the opposition had lost almost 45 percent of the territory it held east of central Aleppo by Monday, and with the army’s siege, infighting among the rebel factions and reports of mounting resentment by locals, they didn’t seem to be in a position to defend their remaining ground.

Immediately after rebel forces withdrew from border districts, hundreds of local residents began to flee to Kurdish and government-controlled areas. Nearly 2,500 people evacuated their neighborhoods into Kurdish-controlled territory, while more than 1,700 others fled to areas controlled by regime forces, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported Monday, releasing pictures of civilians as they fled eastern Aleppo districts. 

“It is stinging cold, food is scarce and people are shaken in the streets,” Mohammad Zein Khandaqani, a member of the Medical Council in Aleppo, told The Associated Press in a voice text message from east Aleppo.

He added that some residents are taking refuge in mosques while others moved to homes of displaced people in safer areas.

He said although thousands of people have fled to government or Kurdish-controlled areas in Aleppo, many stayed because they are wanted by the state.

Among the civilians who have lived under constant bombardment since the government offensive began, are seven-year-old Bana Alabed and her mother Fatimah. The little girl has helped put a human face on the suffering of civilians in eastern Aleppo through the Twitter account managed by her mother.

It was clear from their stream of tweets over the weekend that the government forces were getting nearer, at least from the air.

Early Monday morning, Bana said in a tweet that her family was “under heavy bombardments. In between death and life now.” The night before she tweeted that their home had been destroyed. Before that, the family posted a photo of a young girl bleeding from her head, identifying her as a friend of Bana’s killed in an airstrike. Bana said she had been crying ever since.

The government’s push, backed by thousands of Shiite militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, and under the occasional cover of the Russian air force, has laid waste to Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods.