The Raqqa offensive (codenamed Operation Wrath of Euphrates), is an ongoing military operation launched by the Syrian Democratic Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Raqqa Governorate, with the goal of isolating and eventually capturing the Islamic State’s capital city, Raqqa. Another one of the main goals is to capture the Tabqa Dam and the nearby city of Al-Thawrah. The offensive has also been dubbed the Battle to End All Battles in the War on ISIL. The offensive is concurrent with the Turkish anti-ISIL Battle of al-Bab, the Battle of Mosul in Iraq, the Battle of Sirte (2016) in Libya, the Palmyra offensive (December 2016) launched by ISIL, and a reignition of fighting in Deir ez-Zor’s siege.
The United Nations human rights office had warned that hundreds of men have “gone missing” after crossing into regime-controlled areas of Aleppo as Russian and Syrian air strikes continue to pound the city. The ground offensive and the intensive aerial bombing campaign, which began on November 26, left most medical facilities, civil defence and municipal centres and vehicles, as well as schools, completely destroyed. With key routes once securely connecting the city to Turkey chocked off, civilians found themselves trapped inside without food, medicine and water.
Residents in rebel-controlled east Aleppo – now down to a handful of neighbourhoods – say they fear retribution if they flee to government-held areas. Aisha, a mother of three children, is one of them. Last week, she and her family fled farther south in Aleppo when government forces took over her neighbourhood. Despite the bombings, weak utilities and sanitation, and depleting food supply, Aisha says she prefers to live in rebel areas. “We’re hearing about the army taking and arresting people, so I’m content to wait for a route to open so I can go to live with my family in the countryside,” she said. Hundreds of men from Aleppo went missing after entering government territory, including some of Aisha’s family members with whom she lost contact. After the military onslaught that began three weeks ago, the Syrian army is now controlling around 85 percent of previously rebel-held parts of east Aleppo. The UN and rebel sources say 100,000 people are now in east Aleppo, crammed into a handful of neighbourhoods that amount to around 15 percent of the area the rebels held three weeks ago.
The Syrian army and its allied militias are pushing deeper into east Aleppo as rebel lines collapse and their last urban stronghold looks closer than ever to falling. The fighters withdrew from at least six more east Aleppo neighbourhoods in the face of goverment advances, including al-Salheen, al-Firdous and Bustan al-Qasr, once one of the most fortified districts under opposition control.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said at least 60 people were killed by gunfire or shelling as government forces pushed into the Aleppo’s remaining opposition-held districts. “The battle of Aleppo has reached its end. It is just a matter of a small period of time, no more, no less … it’s a total collapse,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, the UK-based monitoring network’s director. Syrian refugees in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep and the capital Istanbul held solidarity protests on Monday night in support of the people in east Aleppo, as the government stepped up its bombardment.
Up to 20,000 people have fled eastern Aleppo over the past 72 hours as Syrian government forces continued to advance in the rebel-held part of the city, according to the Red Cross. Terrified civilians have fled empty-handed into remaining rebel-held territory, or crossed into government-controlled western Aleppo or Kurdish-held districts. The 20,000 figure is an estimate and could increase as “people are fleeing in different directions”, International Committee of the Red Cross spokesperson Krista Armstrong told the AFP news agency. United Nations humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien had earlier put the number of displaced people from eastern Aleppo at 16,000.
The city, which was Syria’s biggest before the start of a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, has been divided between the government-held west and rebel-held east, where UN officials say at least 250,000 people remain under siege. The Syrian government offensive to recapture the rebel-held parts of Aleppo has sparked international alarm as it intensified this week. A voluntary rescue group known as the White Helmets reported at least 51 civilians killed in east Aleppo and more than 150 injured during the government assault. Syrian government forces dropped “more than 150 air strikes from war planes and helicopters and [fired] more than 1,200 artillery shells”, the group wrote on its Facebook page.
The attacks hit the neighbourhoods of Bab al-Nairab, al-Mayser and al-Salheen, among others. SANA, the official Syrian state media arm, reported that Syrian government forces and allies on Monday took control of several areas in the city’s northeast, including al-Haidariya, al-Sakhour, al-Inzarat, al-Sheikh Khedr, Jabal Badro, and al-Halk.
Civil Defence members walk through smoke as they try to put out a fire inside a building after shelling in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria.
Smoke rises from a building after shelling in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria.
Smoke rises from inside a house after shelling in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria.
Civil Defence members try to put out a fire inside a building after shelling in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria.
A Civil Defence member breathes through a mask as he tries to put out a fire inside a building after shelling in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus.
A Civil Defence member walks through smoke as he tries to put out a fire inside a building after shelling in the rebel held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria.