The Syrian army said on Thursday it had retaken full control of Aleppo, scoring its biggest victory against opposition forces since the civil war erupted in 2011.
The announcement came after an evacuation deal that put an end to a ferocious months-long offensive waged on east Aleppo by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Earlier, the Red Cross said more than 4,000 fighters had left rebel-held areas of the city in the final stages of the evacuation.
The loss of east Aleppo is the biggest blow to Syria’s rebel movement in the nearly six-year conflict, which has killed more than 310,000 people.
It puts the government in control of the country’s five main cities: Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Damascus and Latakia.
Because of the intensity of global rivalries – particularly between Russia and the United States – the international community struggled for years to respond to the bloodshed in Syria.
“The liberation of Aleppo is not only a victory for Syria but also for those who really contribute to the fight against terrorism, notably Russia and Iran,” state news agency SANA quoted Assad as saying before the army announcement on Thursday.
Assad’s suppoters celebrated the fall of Aleppo with government forces and allied militias.
Celebratory gunfire began to erupt and crowds began to fill the streets as soon as the army announced the last rebels had left east Aleppo.
“We’ve been waiting five years for this. We have suffered, what with the rebels, the water shortages and the power cuts,” said Rana al-Salem, 29, as tears welled in her eyes.
The evacuation effort had been hampered by heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures, leaving evacuees waiting in unheated buses for hours.
“Overnight between Wednesday and Thursday, in one of the last stages of the evacuation, more than 4,000 fighters were evacuated in private cars, vans, and pick-ups from eastern Aleppo,” said Ingy Sedky, the spokeswoman in Syria for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
She said about 34,000 people had left rebel areas of Aleppo under the plan.
The United Nations said it had deployed observers to monitor the final evacuations, under a Security Council resolution adopted on Monday.
Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency, said 31 staff had been assigned for monitoring at the crossing point at Ramussa, the government-held district of southern Aleppo through which evacuation convoys have been leaving.
“It’s been a very difficult night. The weather is really harsh, and people are leaving in hundreds of private vehicles at different levels of disrepair,” he told AFP.
Heavy snowfall since Wednesday, which blanketed Aleppo and the surrounding countryside, had slowed down the evacuations.
“The bad weather, including heavy snow and wind, and the poor state of vehicles… mean things are moving much more slowly than expected,” Sedky said.
Rebel forces, who seized control of east Aleppo in 2012, agreed to withdraw from the bastion after a month-long army offensive that drove them from more than 90 percent of their former territory.
The deal was brokered by Russia, which launched air strikes in support of Assad’s government last year, and Turkey, which has supported some rebel groups.
As part of the Aleppo evacuation deal, it was agreed some residents would be allowed to leave Fuaa and Kafraya, two Shia-majority villages in northwestern Syria that are under siege by the rebels.
About 1,000 people have been able to leave the villages in recent days.
The evacuation of Aleppo’s rebel sector is a pivotal moment in a war that has triggered a major humanitarian and refugee crisis.
As well as a major strategic gain for Assad, the rebel withdrawal from Aleppo has given fresh impetus to international efforts to end the conflict.
Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed this week to guarantee Syria peace talks and backed expanding a ceasefire, laying down their claim as the main powerbrokers in the war.
Repeated attempts at peace have failed, but UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has said he hopes to convene fresh talks in Geneva in February.
Formerly the beating heart of Syria’s commercial and cultural industries, Aleppo has been split since July 2012 between rebels in the east and the government in the west.
East Aleppo became a powerful symbol for Syria’s opposition, which set up its own administration to run schools, electricity, and water there. The rebel-held half of the city was battered by Assad’s air strikes and artillery.
Moscow’s military intervention in support of Assad marked a major turning point in the war.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Thursday the Russian air force has killed 35,000 fighters in Syria since it began in September last year.
Turkey launched its own campaign in Syria in late August in support of pro-Ankara rebels, with the aim of ousting Islamic State group militants as well as Kurdish militia from areas near its border.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim vowed Thursday to press on, saying: “Turkey is in the midst of a great struggle – our fight against terror continues both in our country and outside our borders.”[Source: Middle East Eye]