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Aleppo evacuations may be completed Tuesday

Bassem Mroue and Edith M. Lederer
Associated Press

Beirut — The leaders of Russia and Iran, military allies of Syria’s president, talked Monday about joining forces to reach a quick political settlement in Syria, as the country’s largest city, Aleppo, was poised to return to full government control.

Syrian state TV said it expected the evacuation of thousands of civilians and fighters from the last opposition footholds in Aleppo to be completed by early Tuesday.

As more people left the city, the U.N. Security council approved a compromise French-Russian resolution urging the immediate deployment of U.N. monitors to watch over the evacuation and “the well-being of civilians” remaining in the city. U.N. officials said more than 100 U.N. humanitarian staff already on the ground in Aleppo, most of them Syrian nationals, could be used in that role.

France’s U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre said the goal of the resolution is “to avoid new mass atrocities by the forces on the ground and the militias in particular.” But thousands of people have already been evacuated from the city and the operation could be completed before the observers arrive.

The departure of the last rebels from Aleppo would close another chapter in Syria’s civil war and would give President Bashar Assad a significant symbolic and strategic victory.

Almost six years after the outbreak of an armed rebellion against Assad, the Syrian leader will be in charge again of the country’s five largest cities and the Mediterranean coast.

The presidents of Russia and Iran spoke by phone Monday to discuss the next moves. The Kremlin said Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani “underlined the need for joint efforts to launch a real political process aimed at a quick settlement in Syria.”

The leaders noted that a quick launch of talks between the Syrian government and the opposition in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, would be an important step toward that goal, a Kremlin statement said.

The conversation came a day before a scheduled meeting of foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran in Moscow. Russia and Iran have backed Assad, while Turkey has supported the opposition.

The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan De Mistura, welcomed the Moscow meeting and any effort that results in a cessation of hostilities.

He announced that the United Nations hopes to arrange negotiations between the government and opposition in Geneva on Feb. 8.

The Special Envoy will follow with interest the meeting tomorrow between the governments of the Russian Federation, the Republic of Turkey, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. He welcomes any effort that can bring about a cessation of hostilities, which remains a cornerstone of the framework laid down in Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) in parallel with the political process. He has also taken note of the possibility that this initiative, and other initiatives, can promote intra-Syrian dialogue. He welcomes all such efforts as potential contributions to the UN process.

Discussing the Security Council resolution calling for monitors in Aleppo, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said there would also be observers from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Crescent.

The resolution also demands that all parties allow unconditional and immediate access for the U.N. and its partners to deliver humanitarian aid and medical care, and “respect and protect all civilians across Aleppo and throughout Syria.”

Syria’s U.N. Ambassador, Bashar al-Ja’afari, claimed that one of the “main purposes” government opponents pushed for the resolution was to get people into eastern Aleppo to rescue foreign intelligence officers still in the former rebel-held area.

He named 12 alleged officers still trying to get out of Aleppo — six from Saudi Arabia and one each from Turkey, the United States, Israel, Qatar, Jordan and Morocco. He said: “We are going to catch them … and show them to you.”

The rebels captured eastern Aleppo in July 2012 and held on to it despite a ferocious assault in recent months by Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and a host of Shiite militias from Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan.

The evacuation of Aleppo began last week after Turkey and Russia brokered a cease-fire as government forces were closing in on the rebels’ last redoubt, but has been repeatedly delayed.

The evacuation of more than 2,000 sick and wounded from the rebel- besieged Shiite villages of Foua and Kfarya was tacked onto the deal at the last minute. The opposition’s Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen TV said 10 buses left those villages with civilians on Monday.

There are also plans to evacuate hundreds of people from Madaya and Zabadani, two besieged, rebel-held villages near the Lebanese border. The Observatory and Mayadeen said 15 buses entered the two villages on Monday.

Rebel-held eastern Aleppo has been besieged for months, with several previous cease-fires breaking down and virtually no humanitarian aid reaching its tens of thousands of residents.

One of those who left Aleppo on Monday was Mohammed Abu Jaafar, who described a miserable three-mile trip that took more than two hours in an overcrowded government bus.

The Observatory and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu later said that since midnight Sunday, some 4,500 people have been evacuated from eastern Aleppo.

Reports differed on how many people remain in eastern Aleppo, but estimates converge around 15,000 civilians and 6,000 fighters.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency said a total of 131 wounded people — including 46 children — were brought to Turkey for treatment since the evacuations began last week. The agency said five of them have since died.