Aleppo evacuations to resume under new ‘people-swap’ deal

Evacuations of thousands of civilians and rebels from Syria’s eastern Aleppo were set to resume Sunday under a new complex people-swap deal after two ceasefires crumbled and thwarted the operation.

But the deal was put in danger when a number of buses ready for evacuations from neighboring Idlib province were set on fire, according to reports from Syrian state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group. Evacuations have not yet resumed.

Many in eastern Aleppo are desperate for the deal to hold so they can finally flee. Some residents have slept the past two nights on the streets and in bombed-out buildings in subzero temperatures, unwilling to leave pickup spots as warring parties held talks.

Latest developments

Buses set to evacuate people from rebel-besieged towns are set ablaze. More buses enter eastern Aleppo and other cities, Syrian state media reports. New deal mediated by Turkey after two ceasefires crumbled. 9,000 people evacuated before operations were suspended Friday. Rebels say Iranian militia groups brought earlier evacuations to a halt. Syrian regime is on the brink of seizing the whole city of Aleppo.

Winter will be ‘a killer’

The new deal was struck Saturday after almost two days of negotiations, according to Osama Abazid of the the Free Syrian Army rebel alliance.

What began as a straightforward evacuation agreement has become a complicated, three-stage deal involving Aleppo and four other cities that will give civilians, rebels and others loyal to the opposition safe passage from eastern Aleppo, now almost entirely in government control.

In exchange, those loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, including Iranian militia groups, will be evacuated from areas held or besieged by rebels.

The buses set ablaze Sunday were deployed to take people out of rebel-besieged Kefraya and Foua in the neighboring Idlib province, from where some 4,000 people were to be evacuated. They were empty at the time and it is unclear who set them on fire.

Evacuations were also scheduled to take place from the cities of Madaya and Zabadani.

UN humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said on Twitter there were “big protection concerns” for the new evacuations, which will require the cooperation of opposing parties in the Syrian civil war that has raged for more than five years.

The Norwegian Refugee Council is assisting people who have fled eastern Aleppo, many of whom slept outdoors as temperatures plunged below zero. The council is hosting them in camps to the north of the city.

“Our major concern at this point is — not only in Aleppo but across the country, where there are people being displaced by this fighting — is that they’re living in the open, they’re exposed to the elements,” Thomas White, the organization’s Syria Response Director, told CNN’s Cyril Vanier. “And it’s cold right now, and this winter in northern Syria will be a killer.”

From one war zone to another

But for many, being taken to Idlib is moving from one war zone to another — Idlib is widely expected to be the regime’s next target, and the evacuations are in effect moving the rebels to one containable zone.

As many as 9,000 people had been evacuated from Aleppo’s besieged east in nine convoys on Thursday and Friday, but the evacuation came to a sudden halt Friday.

The Syrian state news agency SANA has said the evacuations were suspended after some evacuees were found to be transporting weapons and advanced communication devices.

But rebels claimed that Iranian and other Shia militia groups loyal to Assad had made fresh demands to have regime loyalists freed from other rebel-held areas.

“We would like to highlight that the Iranians are the main reason for delays and obstacles,” Abazid told CNN.

“We call upon you to spare no effort to ensure that attacks on convoys are prevented at all costs.”

‘All my children are gone’

And for those staying, life is only getting more grim, as the government’s grip on eastern Aleppo is now so tight, there is little left for civilians.

The Syrian regime was accused of continuing its destructive airstrikes this week in violation of the earlier ceasefires agreed.

A harrowing video broadcast by ITV’s Channel 4 of what is believed to be eastern Aleppo’s last hospital shows a child siting on a bed, covered in dust and blood, visibly traumatized, following an airstrike.

A woman, also bloodied and white with dust, wails in pain, saying she lost all her children in a strike in their home as they slept, .

“I don’t know what he (Assad) hit us with. We were at home sleeping. Suddenly, the whole building just fell on us. Oh my god! All my children are gone,” she said.

A boy, who appears in the video to be a young teenager, is in tears and shock as he cradles the body of his 1-month old brother, who suffocated in a strike. Two children are escorted around the hospital to look for their parents, hoping they are not the latest to be orphaned.

Security Council to vote

The UN Security Council was scheduled to meet Sunday to vote on a proposal brought by France that would redeploy UN staff to Aleppo to monitor and report on the evacuation of civilians.

But the Security Council has come under criticism, having failed to find a political solution to Syria’s brutal war that has killed at least 400,000 people and to even agree on days-long ceasefires.

Russia, which has supported Assad with airstrikes since September 2015, has used its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council six times to shoot down UN resolutions on the conflict, while China has vetoed five of those six. But Russia supports the evacuation of eastern Aleppo, which will essentially give the Syrian regime free reign over the territory.

If the regime does take control of the key city, it would mark a turning point in the war, putting the regime back in charge of all five major cities in Syria and making a political opposition far less likely to succeed.