Mary Fitzgerald: 'Fall' of Aleppo means an end to Syria's agony is now more remote
The boys' faces are eager, their eyes bright, despite the clear exhaustion. Bundled up in winter coats and looking little more than 10 years old, they speak from the open window of a packed vehicle as they are evacuated from opposition-held eastern Aleppo, the city that has been their home, the city they watched descend into war. "When we grow up, we will come back and liberate Aleppo," they say, with all the certainty of youth.
The two Aleppan boys have known little but war in their young lives. After the regime of president Bashar al-Assad tried to snuff out peaceful protests across Syria more than five years ago, the country's uprising tipped into a bloody civil war marked by appalling atrocities.
From the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons to the targeting of civilians by all sides in what is now a dizzyingly multi-faceted conflict, it has also seen the emergence of Isil and other extremists amid the chaos. An estimated 400,000 people have died (most of them killed by forces loyal to the regime, which now include fighters from Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah), some 4.8 million have fled the country and over 6 million others have been internally displaced.
But it is the siege of the boy's hometown of Aleppo that has come to be the defining chapter so far of a war that will not end with what Assad calls its 'liberation' and his opponents refer to as its 'fall'.
As regime forces pushed further into eastern Aleppo this week, bolstered by the Russian support that has been crucial to Assad since Moscow entered Syria's war last year, the UN said an estimated 50,000 people had fled the now rubbled enclave that had served as the rebels' stronghold since summer 2012. After surviving months of intense bombardment by Russian warplanes and the cutting-off of humanitarian assistance, many felt they had no choice but to leave.
The UN said it had received reports that advancing pro-Assad forces had executed civilians in the street or in their homes - including, on Monday, at least 11 women and 13 children. The regime has lumped all rebels together under the broad label of "terrorists".
The UN's humanitarian aid co-ordinator for Syria, Jan Egeland, said the agency had been kept out of evacuation plans - which tellingly involve a jockeying between Turkey, Russia and Iran - and regime forces had prevented some aid vehicles from entering opposition-held neighbourhoods in a city whose storied heritage bitterly contrasts with its horror today.
"We all feel strongly that the history of Aleppo through this war will be a black chapter in the history of international relations," Egeland said, adding that the city "gave to the world civilisation, and world civilisation was not there to assist the people of Aleppo when they needed us the most".
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Another UN colleague was even more blunt: Aleppo's fate, he said, represented "a complete meltdown of humanity".
That is not how Assad sees it. While others have been drawing comparisons to Srebrenica or Grozny, an upbeat Assad declared "history is being made" in Aleppo. He made the remarks in a rambling video released this week, during which he argued that just as there had been a "before and after" the birth of Christ, the revelation of the Quran, World War II and collapse of the Soviet Union, there would be a before and after Aleppo's "liberation", as he described it.
While retaking Aleppo would be the most significant gain for Assad so far, predictions that it means the war might be drawing to a close are wide of the mark. Somewhat lost amid the coverage of Aleppo this week was the fact that Isil had recaptured Palmyra, showing the limits of the regime when it comes to its ability to control different parts of the country, even with the assistance of allies.
The fall of Aleppo means the prospects of a negotiated settlement to Syria's war are arguably even more remote than before, with the regime having little incentive to do anything but continue its attempt to wipe out its opponents. Until now, any attempts to find a solution have foundered on the fractured opposition's insistence that Assad goes. A newly emboldened Assad will make sure he clings to power, even if it means Syria remains mired in fighting. And that is not even taking into consideration what happens when those two boys leaving Aleppo this week grow up and try to fulfil their promise to "liberate" their hometown from Assad or whatever replaces him. Syria's war shows every sign of being passed on to the next generation, the consequences of which will be felt far beyond its borders.