After a short-lived ceasefire gradually collapsed, bombs have started falling heavily on Aleppo, leaving people there with no choice but to think again about whether it is time to get out of a city at the epicenter of the Syrian war.
The brief normalcy brought by a truce has vanished, emptying, again, the parks and streets of the war-torn country. Residents count the explosions and the dead across the frontlines of a city divided between the government and rebels.
Hope does not loom on the horizon, especially with the government talking about a new attack against the areas of Aleppo under anti-government forces control. Such a campaign would likely aim to close up the last route into rebel-held areas. Air strikes on rebel-held areas have resumed.
Determined to keep their last supply route open and thwart the government’s attempts, rebels have stepped up their bombardment of government-held areas of the city, and of a predominantly Kurdish district controlled by a militia with which they are also at war.
On both sides of the city, the collapse of peace talks in Geneva has been accompanied by talk of new troop mobilizations on the ground. Words are spreading of new deployments by government forces and their Shi’ite militia allies on the one hand, and by rebels including jihadist Nusra Front on the other.
“People are most terrified of the air strikes,” said Abdul Moneim Juneid, a community worker in an orphanage in rebel-held Aleppo. “People had felt tangibly the benefits of the truce” and yearned for security, he said.
But leaving to Turkey, where hundreds of thousands have escaped since the break of the conflict in 2011, is no longer an option. The border is closed to most. “What’s on many people’s minds is the border crossing with Turkey,” he said.
“If Turkey had opened the borders, you would have seen the population of Aleppo go down by half.”
All the main combatants in the multi-sided Syrian war are battling in the Aleppo area: rebels have been waging separate campaigns with the government, the Syrian Kurdish YPG, and ISIS near the Turkish border.
Aid agencies have expressed concern about the fate of tens of thousands of Syrians currently trapped at the border with Turkey, already hosting some 2.5 million Syrian refugees.
Situated in proximity to the Aleppo Turkish border, Syria’s biggest city Aleppo was home to more than 2 million people and an engine of the economy.
Today after the conflict, some 300,000 are estimated to live in rebel-held areas that have sustained heavy casualties and massive destruction because of government bombardment that has already pushed many to flee.
Assad’s government, which is supported by the Russian air force and allied militia from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, has managed to cut the rebels’ most direct supply route into Aleppo in February.
The defeat of the opposition in Aleppo would be a severe setback to the uprising, and also a blow to Turkey which has backed the Syrian rebel groups fighting near its frontier.
The government-held side of the city is still home to more than 1 million people. The level of casualties and destruction there has been far lower than in the opposition-held areas.
But growing rebel fire power has inflicted a heavier toll than at the start of the war.
After the truce, “life had started to return to the city … people were out until late at night”, said Soheib Masri a 29-year-old journalist, speaking by phone from the government side. Now, people were moving away from frontline areas again into safer parts of the city, and in some cases leaving altogether.
“There is a new movement of Aleppo residents towards the other provinces, towards the coast,” he said. “I am thinking of getting my family out because there is great fear. The shelling today isn’t like before … they’ve got rockets that go further.”
The route out of government-held Aleppo is also vulnerable. The main Damascus-Aleppo highway runs through rebel held territory, leaving the government dependent on a twisty desert road that is vulnerable to ISIS attack.
ISIS, however, cut that road in an attack last February. The group remains perched some 10 km (6 miles) away, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
“WE CANNOT MOVE”
Seizing all Aleppo from opponents has been a government priority since the Russian air force intervened in support of Assad last September, tipping the balance in his favor.
The “cessation of hostilities” deal engineered by the United States and Russia in February began to work loose in the Aleppo area this month with each side accusing the other of attacking first.
This week the Russian military had repositioned artillery near Aleppo, adding to speculation of another assault on the city, according to U.S. officials.
The opposition’s only way left in and out of the city is the so-called Castello road, which provides access to Aleppo’s rebel-held western approaches but passes within firing range of Sheikh Maqsoud, an Aleppo district held by the Kurdish YPG militia.
Rivalry between the YPG and rebels has spilled into all-out war in the Aleppo area since late last year. Rebels say their attack resulted from YPG attempts to cut the road.
Mohamad Sheikho, a Sheikh Maqsoud resident and member of a leading Kurdish political party, also complained of rebel bombardment. “We cannot move, I tell you. It is besieged,” he said by phone.
“The humanitarian situation is extremely bad.”
The Observatory, which tracks all sides of the conflict, said that while some goods could be smuggled into Sheikh Maqsoud from adjoining government-held districts, it was considered besieged.
Rebels say the YPG wants to take the Castello road in collaboration with Damascus.
“Twenty brigades of the FSA agreed to teach the PKK a lesson,” said Zakaria Malahifji of an Aleppo-based rebel group, referring to the Sheikh Maqsoud attack.
The rebels often call the YPG the PKK, a reference to its links to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. The YPG denies rebel claims that it coordinates its attacks with Damascus.
Some in Aleppo say they will not leave, regardless of how bad it gets.
“We have been living in this state of war for three years. The people have gotten used to it,” said Ammar al-Absi, a member of a rebel-run local council.
Nuha Ftaima, a 52-year-old school teacher living on the government side, says she will never leave.
Both her husband and brother have been killed in the war, one shot by a sniper and the other killed by a shell.