[News] IT HAS been a long and bloody conflict leaving hundreds of thousands dead. But despite the Syrian government claiming a victory in Aleppo, its problems are far from over.
Thousands of civilians remain trapped and face a desperate fight for survival just days after President Bashar al-Assad announced the Syrian army regained control of the city from rebel forces.
The once thriving commercial centre has been reduced to a war zone, and many of its once famous buildings and monuments left in ruins after five long and brutal years of civil war.
So how did it get this way?
WHAT’S GOING ON?
The Syrian army on Monday announced it was in control of 98 per cent of Aleppo following a military offensive which began on November 26.
Along with Aleppo, the Syrian government also controls the capital, Damascus, parts of southern Syria, Deir Az Zor, most of the territory along the border with Lebanon as well as most of the northwestern coast. The rest of Syria is controlled by rebels, Islamic State and Kurdish forces.
IS THERE STILL FIGHTING?
Yes, despite Assad claiming a victory in Aleppo, the city remains in the grip of conflict and confusion.
Just today, a ceasefire to evacuate rebel fighters and civilians from the remaining opposition-held neighbourhoods of Aleppo unravelled, once again raising the spectre of a bloody end to the battle for Syria’s largest city.
Residents reported shelling and brutal bombing runs had resumed while Assad opponents accused the government and its allies of scuttling the deal by adding new conditions, including the lifting of a rebel siege on two pro-government Shiite villages in nearby Idlib province. However, hours after it crumbled, the rebels insist the deal was back on.
HOW DID THE CIVIL WAR START?
In 2011, Syria was caught up in the Arab Spring uprising which saw Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak toppled from power.
That March, protests erupted in the southern Syrian city of Daraa following the detention of a group of boys who were accused of painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of their school. Security forces opened fire, killing four people in the first deaths of the uprising. Demonstrations soon spread sparking a crackdown by Assad’s forces.
By July 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had formed and the country slid into civil war.
WHAT WERE THEY ANGRY ABOUT?
The Assad family has held power in the country since 1971.
The Assads are not religiously extreme but belong to the Alawites strand of Islam. While Syrians were not protesting against religious extremists, like in other Arab Spring countries, they were angry that long-promised economic and political reforms failed to eventuate.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
Rebels seized eastern Aleppo in July 2012, dividing the city, resulting in intense fighting and bombs being dropped on the densely populated rebel-held east, causing an estimated one million civilians to flee. Another half million were displaced.
Things got messier in August after insurgents gained control of the Aleppo-Damascus highway, tightening the siege on the government part of the city.
WHAT DOES ISLAMIC STATE HAVE TO DO WITH IT?
Quite a lot, not only does the Syrian government have rebels to contend with but also Islamic State forces as well.
By August 2013, rebel forces began to weaken thanks to poor co-ordination and infighting. IS fighters clashed with the rebels, establishing a presence in the eastern part of the city.
By December that year, the government began an unprecedented campaign of dropping barrel bombs and IS expanded its presence in the eastern part of city. But by the following month rebel forces united against IS, driving the extremists out of Aleppo. But government forces exploited the fighting to push the rebels back.
Around 55,000 jihadists had also been killed in the fighting so far, most of them from the Islamic State group or former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front.
Aside from Syrian forces, Russia, Iran and even Lebanon have bolstered Assad in the civil war.
In October 2015, Russia began air strikes while Syrian troops launched an offensive around Aleppo. Iraqi, Lebanese and Iranian militias also threw their weight behind the government.
Meanwhile several Arab states, along with Turkey, provided support to rebel groups in Syria, Al Jazeera reported.
The US has accused President Assad of being responsible for widespread atrocities and want to see him out of power. So far though it has tried to avoid taking part in any attacks which might directly benefit the Syrian army.
It supports Syria’s main opposition alliance, the National Coalition, and also provides limited military assistance to moderate rebels, the BBC reported.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) receives support from the US Central Intelligence Agency, while the Kurdish Popular Defence Units (YPG and YPJ) receive support from the US Department of Defence, according to Quartz.
In September 2014, the US joined the international coalition against Islamic State but has avoided intervening in battles between rebel and Assad forces.
DEADLY COST TO HUMANITY
People on both sides have been killed, and the death toll from the civil war is now estimated to stand at 312,000 according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The toll includes more than 53,000 rebels and nearly 110,000 pro-regime fighters, among them more than 60,000 Syrian soldiers. But it also includes tens of thousands of Syrian militiamen, members of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement and other foreign fighters.
However according to Al Jazeera the death toll from the conflict is closer to 450,000 with 12 million Syrians displaced.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on the Syrian government, Russia and Iran to urgently allow civilians to escape Aleppo.
“We have collectively failed the people of Syria,” he said at a UN Security Council meeting. “History will not easily absolve us.”
Both the west and the UN claim civilians have been intentionally killed, but the Syrian army has denied carrying out killings or torture among those captured.
It is also feared civilians are too scared to flee and thousands remain hidden, trusting neither side to keep them safe.
WASN’T THERE ALREADY A CEASE FIRE?
Yes, in February this year Russia and the US brokered a ceasefire with rebels that excluded extremists, however it was short-lived and it collapsed just two months later.
In July the government and allied forces imposed a full siege on eastern Aleppo, home to an estimated 250,000 people. Rebel fighters broke the siege for a couple of weeks but it was reimposed by August. The following month another ceasefire negotiated by Russia and the US held for a few days, but talks to bring in aid got nowhere.
Soon after Russia announced it was suspending air strikes in eastern Aleppo so aid and medical evacuations could get in and out. But rebels rejected the offer and the UN announced it couldn’t carry out medical evacuations due to security concerns.
Last month, the Syrian army launched a renewed and intensified aerial campaign. Syrian troops and allied forces launched a major ground offensive, causing rebel defences to crumble and thousands to flee.
A ceasefire, brokered by Turkey and Russia, was announced overnight to allow the evacuation of rebels and civilians and effectively surrendering the city to the government.
But it never truly took hold on the ground and government shelling continues.