THE resumption, late on Sunday night, of the evacuation of thousands of civilians from the besieged rebel-held districts of eastern Aleppo, raised hopes that peace might soon return to the city. But the relief felt at the ending of the Aleppo siege has been tempered by warnings from aid organisations that the departure of the city’s inhabitants means that the number of displaced Syrians needing support will grow significantly.
The collapse last Friday of a deal to allow the inhabitants to leave safely meant that tens of thousands remained stranded over the weekend without shelter, and with only minimal access to food and medical care. The Syrian government ordered a halt to the evacuation, because another part of the deal — to allow pro-regime forces under siege by rebels in two mainly Shia towns, al-Foua and Kefraya, to reach safety — was not honoured. On Sunday, buses waiting to transport them were set on fire.
On Sunday evening, however, the rebels lifted the siege. The head of the UN task force for humanitarian aid, Jan Egeland, said in a tweet: “First limited evacuations, finally, tonight, from east Aleppo and Foua & Kefraya. Many thousands more are waiting to be evacuated soon.” By mid-morning on Monday, some 5000 civilians had left Aleppo, joining the 12,000 who had been escorted to safety last week.
At the international level, the UN Security Council on Monday voted unanimously to send UN monitors to oversee the evacuation of eastern Aleppo. Russia had earlier rejected a French-drafted plan to achieve this, but a compromise was reached after intense negotiations over the weekend. The call for the presence of monitors grew after reports indicated that dozens of men evacuated from eastern Aleppo had disappeared, with the suggestion that they had been detained, or even killed, by pro-government forces.
Satisfaction at the resumption of the evacuation programme has not erased the anger felt by humanitarian organisations at the world’s failure to force the combatants to allow aid to reach the besieged civilians in Aleppo. Mr Egeland said at the weekend that “all of the parties on the ground are guilty of blocking access for international humanitarian workers. I cannot recall a war where this has been such an acute problem.”
The advocacy and programme officer for Syria at Christian Aid, Máiréad Collins, said on Monday that, while “it’s a relief that the evacuation is going ahead safely after several stops and starts, this shouldn’t be considered as a joyful occasion, because it’s yet another mass displacement of people. It’s not the end of the humanitarian crisis. The displaced, who’ve left all their possessions behind, will need support.” Shelter, food, and medical care would have to be found for thousands of people, many of whom, over the years, had taken refuge in Aleppo after being driven out of their own towns and villages.
Ms Collins said that she was horrified at the lack of outside intervention to stop the killing and suffering in eastern Aleppo. The world had simply allowed the “unravelling of humanity before our eyes. We all sat back and watched it on social media; we saw it happening, children pulled from the rubble, and so on. The public watched it, and our political representatives watched it. There was too much hand-wringing, too many statements without action.” The important thing now, she aid, was “to get a proper ceasefire in place without delay”.
The head of Amnesty International’s UN office in New York, Sherine Tadros, said on Monday that the Security Council should “urgently send monitors to all areas of evacuation, not just Aleppo”.
Although the international community has finally pulled together to help resolve the eastern Aleppo crisis, the outcome amounts to no more than the curing of one small part of a large, infected body. The war has become so complex, with countless armed groups pursuing disparate goals, that finding a cure for Syria as a whole still presents an enormous challenge for world leaders.
The Syria crisis, with its intense misery and complexity, has overshadowed Christmas celebrations, this year even more than in the previous five. As the president of Caritas Internationalis, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, said in his seasonal message: “At times, it seems it is always winter, never Christmas, in Syria. For half a decade, the people have suffered from the cruel winds of war.”