PHOTO: Residents of eastern Aleppo city await removal on Thursday


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Voices from East Aleppo — “I Hope We Will Return Victorious”
Iran Daily: Tehran Denies Blocking Syria’s Ceasefire-Evacuation Deal
Syria Podcast: After Aleppo — Will Russia Move Away from Assad?
Syria Analysis: After Aleppo — It’s Up to Russia and Iran


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UPDATE 2300 GMT: Footage of a man fleeing gunfire by pro-Assad militias in eastern Aleppo city today:


UPDATE 1650 GMT: Teacher Abdulkafi al-Hamdo sends messages from eastern Aleppo city:

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UPDATE 1500 GMT: Journalist Hadi al-Abdallah says the 800 convoy passengers detained by pro-Assad and Iran-led militias this morning have been freed.

However, al-Abdallah says three people were executed and seven seized by the militias.

One of the passengers said four passengers were slain:

Opposition activists also say the passengers were robbed of mobile phones, money, and even clothing.

Journalist Rami Jarrah says the convoy was forced to halt at a Hezbollah checkpoint. Armored vehicles surrounded the buses, fired 23-mm cannons, and expelled the Syrian Red Crescent. All men were then forced to undress as their mobiles and any light weapons were confiscated.

Hezbollah also took ambulances, civil defense cars, and other vehicles, according to Jarrah.

The journalist puts the death toll at 6, including a rebel who resisted. His pregnant wife was wounded and taken away by the pro-Assad militias.

However, the BBC’s Riam Dalati quotes a “source who was on convoy” saying, “No truth to Hezbollah killing 4 evacuees or stealing from us. Only shot over us to stop buses.”

Pro-opposition Bilal Abdul Kareem sends an urgent message about the latest developments:


UPDATE 1455 GMT: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has tried to save the evacuation agreement with a phone call to Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Çavuşoğlu did not say if the appeal was successful; however, according to Turkey’s Daily Sabah, a “Syrian opposition source” said rebels had agreed to evacuation of wounded from the regime enclaves of al-Fu’ah and Kafraya in Idlib Province.

Iran has insisted on the evacuation alongside removals from eastern Aleppo city, but rebels have resisted formal recognition because this might endanger the opposition areas of Madaya and Zabadani in Damascus Province (see earlier entries).

Kafraya and al-Fu’ah are unlikely to be put on the negotiation table because of their linkage with the future — including access to aid and assurances against being overrun — of the two Damascus towns. Russia has agreed so far to leaving the enclaves out of the formal talks.


UPDATE 1450 GMT: As the convoy blocked by pro-Assad and Iran-led militias returns to eastern Aleppo city, Lina Shamy on the civilians still awaiting departure:


UPDATE 1300 GMT: Zaina Erhaim writes in The Guardian:

My husband, Mahmoud Rashwani, who is still in Syria, is busy keeping a record of all the wills he has received from his besieged friends and comrades. One common theme is that they would all prefer to be killed than captured by Assad militias. “I would have wanted the same, otherwise I will be wishing for death without getting it,” he tells me, speaking about the torture practised in Assad’s prisons that he knows too well from his own experiences.

Some of us are so distressed we can barely function. At times we sob and curse the useless United Nations. There are more than 50,000 people who might not wake up tomorrow if we don’t keep up our screams and pleas.


UPDATE 1230 GMT: Communications have been cut off with eastern Aleppo city, reportedly because of Russian-regime jamming.

Pro-opposition outlets say that pro-Assad militias have added a new condition for a resumption of removals: the release of 66 of their members arrested in and near Aleppo.


UPDATE 1130 GMT: Russia has ended the evacuation agreement, even though an estimated 50,000 people are still in eastern Aleppo city.

The Russian “center for reconciliation” said all people who wanted to leave eastern Aleppo have now done so.

Russian media insisted, “The evacuees from the last convoy told authorities that everyone who wanted to leave the rebel-held area had done so.”

The statement made no reference to the detention of part of the final convoy by Iranian-led and pro-Assad militias.

The declaration is a sharp reversal of Russia’s position. Earlier in the day, Russian President Vladimir Putin said:

Judging from what I see, things are happening in accordance with the agreements I reached with the Turkish President (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) during his visit to St. Petersburg. We agreed that Turkey would provide every possible assistance in arranging the exit of those militants who were ready to lay down their arms, first and foremost, to protect civilians.

Putin said he and Erdogan agreed during a phone conversation earlier this week to hold talks between the regime and opposition in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana.

Syrian State media put out a statement hiding this morning’s attack on the evacuation convoy and proclaiming:

The terrorist groups have breached the agreement on evacuation of militants and weapons from the neighborhoods of Salah-Eddin, al-Ansari, al-Mashhad and al-Zibdiyeh in East Aleppo city as they tried to smuggle heavy weapons and kidnapped people in the buses transporting them towards southwestern Aleppo.


UPDATE 1110 GMT: Pro-Assad forces are reportedly attacking opposition districts in eastern Aleppo city after forcing the Syrian Red Crescent to withdraw.

Pro-opposition activists say Hezbollah fighters are leading the assault on the Sukkari area.


UPDATE 1040 GMT: Pro-Assad militias, reportedly controlled by Iran, have stopped at least one convoy of people leaving Aleppo city.

The pro-opposition STEP news agency said the convoy — the ninth in the removals — with about 800 people was blocked this morning as it moved through Aleppo city to the Rashidin district. Reports said the militia opened fire and then the passengers hostage.

The transports have now been suspended after eight convoys brought out about 7,500 people.

Russian troops had reportedly provided protection of the convoys after attacks by pro-Assad and Iranian militias on Wednesday and early Thursday. A local source said the Russian ordered vehicles which were not surrounded by the militias this morning to return to the staging area for the removals.

Iran has been applying pressure against the ceasefire-evacuation deal, even overruling Russia by blocking implementation on Wednesday.

The Iranians have demanded recognition of an evacuation of wounded and unrestricted access to aid for the Assad regime’s enclaves of al-Fu’ah and Kafraya, in opposition-controlled Idlib Province.

However, rebels refused any such clause in Wednesday’s renewed agreement. They fear that an unrestricted evacuation from the enclaves will endanger the opposition areas in Madaya and Zabadani, up to now been linked to al-Fu’ah and Kafraya in a mutual arrangement for aid and security from being overrun.

Turkey reportedly assured Iran that, despite the lack of a formal clause, the movement of wounded from al-Fu’ah and Kafraya could proceed. About 1000 people were evacuated on Thursday.

As the convoy was cut off, Syrian State TV put out the pretext that the evacuation deal had been suspended because rebels had tried to take captives with them.

A regime military outlet said protesters had blocked the road in demands that people be allowed to leave al-Fu’ah and Kafraya.


ORIGINAL ENTRY: The removal of an estimated 60,000 civilians and rebels from Syria’s largest city Aleppo continued overnight, after the transports finally began on Thursday.

A total of five convoys of buses and ambulances, carrying more than 5,000 people, have now left opposition districts of eastern Aleppo city for the western Aleppo countryside. The removals are expected to continue throughout the day, after they were initially delayed by shelling and gunfire from Iranian-controlled and Assad regime militias.

The thousands of civilians and rebels will initially go to opposition-controlled Idlib Province. Some will then be able to relocate in areas such as northern Aleppo Province, which is now an effective “safe zone” because of the advance of a Turkish-rebel offensive against the Islamic State.

See also Syria Podcast: After Aleppo — Will Russia Move Away from Assad?
Syria Podcast: Assessing Aleppo and Beyond
Syria Analysis: After Aleppo — It’s Up to Russia and Iran

Zouhir al-Shimale, a resident who offered regular updates on the Russian-regime attacks on eastern Aleppo, says good-bye:

Boys being removed promise, “When we grow up, we will liberate Aleppo”:

See more videos and pictures in Syria Daily, Dec 15: Aleppo Evacuation Begins

Those leaving Aleppo left final messages, often promising to return — a Free Syrian Army fighter and his wife look upon the graffiti, “Coming Back — Love! 15/12/16”.

aleppo-coming-back-15-12-16

A rebel cries over imminent departure:

aleppo-man-crying-15-12-16

Photo: Karam al-Masri/AFP

The evacuation of wounded from the regime enclaves of al-Fu’ah and Kafraya in Idlib Province also began on Thursday. Iran had insisted that rebels accept the evacuation before agreeing to the removals from Aleppo, blocking the agreement brokered by Turkey and Russia.

Rebels prevented any clause over al-Fu’ah and Kafraya being placed into Wednesday’s renewed deal. They fear that an unrestricted evacuation from the enclaves will endanger the opposition areas in Madaya and Zabadani, which have up to now been linked to al-Fu’ah and Kafraya in a mutual arrangement for aid and security from being overrun.

However, Turkey reportedly gave assurances to Iran that movement of wounded from the enclaves could proceed.

1000s Killed by Russian-Regime Assault

The capitulation followed months of a Russian-regime siege and bombing, followed by ground attacks from foreign forces — Iranian troops, Hezbollah fighters, a Palestinian brigade, and Iranian-led Afghan and Iraqi militia — as well as some regime military and paramilitary units.

On Thursday, medical and rescue organizations and pro-opposition activists said in a letter that Russian airstrikes in and near Aleppo killed 1,207 civilians, 380 of them children, since July 2016

The White Helmets, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Independent Doctors Association, and the Violations Documentation Center detailed the killings in a 39-page document submitted to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria. The verification is based on witness testimony and corroborating evidence, including video and audio.

“Evidence clearly indicates that Russia has committed or been complicit in war crimes in Syria,” the letter concluded.

Drone footage of Thursday’s removals:

Kerry: “Indiscriminate Slaughter” by Assad and Allies

US Secretary of State John Kerry — sidelined during the Turkish-Russian move for a ceasefire after years of trying to get a political resolution through cooperation with Moscow — denounced the Russian-regime mass killings in a news briefing on Thursday:

There is absolutely no justification whatsoever for the indiscriminate and savage brutality against civilians shown by the regime and by its Russian and Iranian allies over the past few weeks, or indeed for the past five years….

So let’s be crystal clear about who bears responsibility for what we have seen and what we are seeing, and continue to see in Syria. We are seeing the unleashing of a sectarian passion, allowing the Assad regime – not allowing; the Assad regime is allowing, and the Assad regime is aiding and abetting, and the Assad regime is actually carrying out nothing short of a massacre. And we have witnessed indiscriminate slaughter – not accidents of war, not collateral damage, but frankly, purposeful, a cynical policy of terrorizing civilians.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, who has been able unable to check the Russian-regime assaults, warned that the bloodshed might not stop with the capitulation in Aleppo: “I don’t know what will happen in Idlib, but if there is no ceasefire or political accord, then it will become the next Aleppo,”

De Mistura was appearing alongside French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who has led efforts for action against the Russian-regime killing of civilians.

Last week Russia used its sixth veto since the Syrian uprising began to block any UN Security Council intervention in Aleppo, including a ceasefire.

Meanwhile, President Assad celebrated the removals in a brief video message:

I want to confirm that what is happening today is history that is being written by every Syrian citizen. Its writing did not start today. It started about six years ago when the crisis and the war on Syria began.


US Hits ISIS Near Palmyra — Cooperation with Russia and Assad?

The US-led coalition says it has struck Islamic State positions near Palmyra, the historic city in central Syria taken by ISIS from the Assad regime on Monday.

The coalition said ten strikes destroyed 14 tanks, an anti-aircraft artillery system, three other artillery systems, two buildings, and two tactical vehicles.

The US military had warned of attacks to destroyed ISIS weapons which posed a threat. However, the strikes could mark the first effective American co-operation with Russia and the Assad regime against the Islamic State.

ISIS’s lightning offensive surprised about 3,000 pro-Assad defenders, including 1,200 Afghan militia, to seize the city and nearby oil and gas fields within 72 hours.

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