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“Moderate rebels” torch buses in Aleppo evacuating civilians

A man on a motorcycle drives past burning buses while en route to evacuate ill and injured people from the besieged Syrian villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, after they were attacked and burned, in Idlib province, Syria December 18, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

Reports from Syria confirm that buses which were due to evacuate civilians and wounded Shiite militia fighters from two Shia provinces in Syria’s Idlib province have been attacked and burnt by the Al-Qaeda led Jihadis who are besieging these villages.

At Iran’s insistence the evacuation of civilians and wounded Shiite fighters from these villages was linked to the withdrawal of Jihadi fighters and civilians from eastern Aleppo.

The refusal of Al-Qaeda led Jihadis to allow the agreed evacuation from the two Shiite villages is as a result holding up the withdrawal of Jihadi fighters and civilians from eastern Aleppo.

This incident reveals a number of important truths about the Syrian conflict.

The first is that the Western media is actually reporting it.  The probable reason for that is that with the end of the fighting in Aleppo Western journalists are at last able to go there and to report on the spot.  Though most of them doubtless remain intensely hostile to the Syrian government, the mere fact that they are now engaged in some actual on the spot reporting means that the coverage has suddenly become fractionally more balanced and nuanced.

More importantly, this episode shows who is really responsible for the suffering of civilians in Aleppo, and who is intent on pursuing a murderous and fanatical sectarian agenda in Syria.

Though the Western media failed to report the fact, the Russians and the Syrian government have offered since the summer to allow the Al-Qaeda led Jihadis and the civilians in eastern Aleppo who want to leave to withdraw peacefully from eastern Aleppo.  The negotiations between the Russians and the US which were underway from June to early December were focused on that goal.  In early September the Kerry-Lavrov agreement appeared to provide for it.

Even after the Kerry-Lavrov agreement broke down the Russians unilaterally imposed on themselves a ‘humanitarian pause’ lasting several weeks in order to give the Al-Qaeda led Jihadis in eastern Aleppo and the civilians there the opportunity to leave.  ‘Humanitarian corridors’ were established monitored by the Russian military to enable them to do so.

These offers were unavailing, with the Western media reporting that the Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo and the civilians were too frightened of reprisals by the Syrian authorities to leave.   The Russians and the Syrians by contrast reported that the civilians were being prevented from leaving by the Al-Qaeda led Jihadi fighters, who insisted on keeping them in eastern Aleppo so that they could act as human shields.

The events of the last 2 weeks have demonstrated conclusively that it was the Russians and the Syrians who were telling the truth.

As soon as Al-Qaeda’s control over eastern Aleppo weakened following the Syrian army’s offensive against the Jihadi pocket started at the end of November, tens of thousands of civilians fled eastern Aleppo to areas of the city under Syrian government control.

A fact that is not being widely reported is that far more civilians – around 100,000 – fled eastern Aleppo to the government controlled areas than are still in eastern Aleppo with the Jihadis.  The UN estimates their number to be 30-40,000, a fact which incidentally shows that the figure of 250,000 commonly reported during the siege for the civilian population of eastern Aleppo was indeed exaggerated, and that the true number was 140,000.

Once civilians did indeed begin to leave eastern Aleppo following the start of the government offensive, the more credible reports show that they were humanely treated, with the Russians and the Syrian authorities providing them with shelter and hot food, and with the Russians sending mobile hospitals to the city to treat them (one of these hospital was shelled by the Jihadis in an episode which the Western media and Western government disgracefully have never condemned).

After Jihadi fighters and civilians began to be evacuated from eastern Aleppo as a result of the Putin-Erdogan agreement, all the credible reports from the city once again confirm that when they are being evacuated they are being evacuated safely.

As for the atrocity stories that were receiving saturation coverage a week ago, it is striking how over the last few days they have almost entirely dried up – again almost certainly as a consequence of the belated presence of Western reporters and observers in the city.

By contrast the attack on the buses by the Al-Qaeda led Jihadi fighters trying to prevent the evacuation of civilians and wounded fighters from the two Shiite villages, highlights the utter ruthlessness and extreme sectarian attitudes of these fighters.  Quite simply, they are unwilling to let these Shiites go, even if by preventing them from leaving they are putting the safety of their Sunni co-religionists and their Jihadi comrades in Aleppo at risk.

The reality about the ‘Great Battle of Aleppo’ is that it should have been ended in September.  At that point the Jihadi offensive launched in August to break the siege of the Al-Qaeda controlled eastern districts had been defeated.  The Jihadis in eastern Aleppo were trapped, and with the Russian military engaged there was no realistic possibility of the siege being broken or of their escape.

In the light of this, all the fighting – and all the death and suffering – which has happened in Aleppo since September is the product of the refusal of the Al-Qaeda led Jihadis in eastern Aleppo and of their Western backers – which must include most of the Western media – to accept this reality.

It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the need to preserve the propaganda narrative and the illusory objective of regime change in Syria in the end overrode concern for the people of Aleppo.

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