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Research Report

Breaking Aleppo

Maksymilian Czuperski
Faysal Itani
Ben Nimmo
Eliot Higgins
Emma Beals
Copyright Date: Feb. 1, 2017
Published by: Atlantic Council
Pages: 70
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 1-1)
    Madeleine Albright, Carl Bildt, Nicholas Burns and Jon Huntsman Jr.

    After nearly five years of bitter fighting, bombardment, and siege, the Bashar al-Assad regime, Iran, and Russia finally broke Aleppo on December 22, 2016, defeating the opposition and displacing much of the local population. This represented a critical turning point in the Syrian civil war and shifted the balance of power between the United States, its local allies, and its adversaries in Syria.

    The siege of Aleppo brought the horrors of the twentieth century’s wars to the twenty-first century. Hospitals were bombed, not once or twice, but repeatedly; cluster bombs and incendiaries fell on residential areas; chemical weapons were used....

  2. (pp. 2-6)

    Aleppo has been described as the Srebrenica, and the Rwanda, of our time.¹ After more than four years of stalemate and months of siege and battle, December 2016 saw the last of the population from the besieged eastern half of the city evacuated on the now-infamous green buses.

    The evacuation was the result of a crescendo of brutality. Years of indiscriminate bombings killed thousands and destroyed much of the east of the city.² This gave way to months of brutal siege,³ and finally, to weeks of bombardment and fighting. The final assault resembled the razing of a city and its...

  3. (pp. 7-11)

    How many people lived in east Aleppo during the siege, and who were they? Reported estimates range from as low as 30,000 to as high as 326,000. The presence of armed groups, in particular a small number of al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), was used as a smokescreen by the government and Russia to portray the city’s overwhelmingly civilian population as a military threat.

    The claim that there were “only militants”41 was never true of Aleppo. Judging by the numbers who fled the city in the final evacuation, the lowest recorded figure, showed at least 110,000 people lived...

  4. (pp. 12-15)

    Syria’s cities have been one of Assad’s greatest challenges. It was in the cities that his opponents, often untrained and lightly armed, were best able to challenge the regime; but, allowing Syria’s largest cities to fall posed a grave strategic risk to his rule. Once the initial crackdown failed to break the opposition’s resistance, the regime turned to siege tactics.

    Throughout the conflict, more than forty localities have been besieged, most in the suburbs of Damascus and Homs. Following Russia’s military intervention in 2015, and particularly from the summer of 2016, key sieges were intensified into air and ground assaults....

  5. (pp. 16-18)

    In line with priorities that shifted toward a reduction in violence, ceasefires have been an increasingly large part of international diplomacy around Syria. The country saw four in 2016: a cessation of hostilities in February, a brief ceasefire around the festival of Eid in July, a ceasefire negotiated by the US and Russia in September, and the final Aleppo ceasefire in December, which paved the way for a nationwide ceasefire in January.

    Most of these pauses were used by the warring parties to jostle for position and credibility, both on the ground and among the shifting global diplomatic sands. While...

  6. (pp. 19-20)

    Indiscriminate aerial attacks have rained down across Syria throughout the conflict. In Aleppo, they began in 2012. They increased significantly in December 2013, and when Russia entered the conflict in earnest in September 2015, and once again through the final months of 2016, both the number of attacks and the variety of weapons used expanded.

    According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), Aleppo was hit by 4,045 barrel bombs in 2016, with 225 falling in December alone.94 A record of attacks compiled by the first responder organization Syrian Civil Defence, known as the “White Helmets,” covering the period...

  7. (pp. 21-30)

    Throughout the final months of 2016, dozens of attacks on hospitals and clinics in opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo were reported. Doctors and nurses, whose chief task during the siege was to care for the victims of bombings and shellings, all too often fell victim to bombs themselves.

    As many as 172 verified attacks on medical facilities and personnel were reported across Syria between June and December 2016.101 According to figures from the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), seventy-three of those (42 percent) occurred in the city of Aleppo. The attacks were so frequent, and some key hospitals were struck so...

  8. (pp. 31-36)

    “Assad or we burn the country” was a popular pro-government slogan, scrawled on the walls by government-aligned shabeeha militia in the early days of the uprising,133 but it came to refer, colloquially at least, to the “scorched earth” strategy used by the government’s forces. Footage of Old Homs, evacuated in May 2014, showed an early indication of the lengths and levels of destruction to which the regime would go when attempting to regain control of an area.134

    Incendiary attacks had long been reported from the countryside outside Aleppo city: HRW recorded over sixty attacks between November 2012 and the end...

  9. (pp. 37-41)

    Since 2012, cluster munitions have been regularly used in the Syrian conflict,167 with a wealth of open source evidence showing their use despite repeated denials.168 As with other kinds of weaponry, patterns of cluster bombing already observed across Syria were played out in east Aleppo, increasing in frequency within the city in the last six months of 2016. At least twenty-two incidents were reported in Aleppo city between July and December 2016.

    Like so many other weapons used by the Syrian and Russian forces in the conflict, cluster munitions are intrinsically indiscriminate. They have been banned in 116 countries. In...

  10. (pp. 42-45)

    The final months of the battle for Aleppo were marked by frequent reports of chemical weapon attacks against opposition-controlled areas, both inside and surrounding the city. Again, this pattern had already been played out elsewhere in Syria and has every likelihood of continuing.

    Since the Sarin attacks in Damascus on August 21, 2013, there have been dozens of reports of chemical weapon attacks across Syria using chlorine, sarin, mustard gas, and other agents.196 In August 2016, the third report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations (OPCW/UN) Joint Investigative Mechanism197 concluded that Syrian government forces had used...

  11. (pp. 46-53)

    In November, Assad’s final push to retake control of Aleppo began. Through the second half of November and into early December, thousands of people fled east Aleppo, seeking refuge from the military campaign. In a rapidly shifting and high-stakes situation that unfolded over several weeks, allegations of executions, arrests, and desperate pleas to be saved, swirled around in the media and diplomatic circles. Verification of specific cases and the circumstances of those in the city in real time was hampered by the constantly changing events on the ground.

    After vetoes by Russia and China prevented the UN Security Council (UNSC)...

  12. (pp. 54-61)

    Aleppo was not broken in the darkness. Numerous witnesses provided evidence, some of it conflicting but much of it consistent, to substantiate claims of chemical attacks, barrel bombs, air strikes on hospitals and schools, and the deaths of thousands of civilians.

    Throughout the siege, the Syrian and Russian governments waged a battle against the evidence, denying the facts, misrepresenting the victims, and attacking the witnesses.

    These attacks were consistent across so many platforms that they took on the appearance of a separate disinformation campaign, aimed at distracting attention from events on the ground by focusing on discrediting, and silencing, the...

  13. (pp. 62-62)

    This report has described in detail and context how the regime and its allies finally broke opposition-held Aleppo using siege, indiscriminate bombing, chemical weapons, incendiary bombs, and unrelenting misinformation. The findings are a sound rebuttal to the regime coalition’s deliberate obfuscation and denials over what happened there. Telling Aleppo’s story offers an in-depth view of some of the strategies being employed elsewhere around Syria, but even this is only the start of any effort to handle the Syria crisis and the role of Bashar al-Assad’s allies in it. The battle of Aleppo is over, the battle for Syria not nearly...