The rebellion of Aleppo appeared to be in its death throes as Assad’s troops and Iranian-backed militias took control of the vast majority of the territory once held by the opposition, coming within sight of a crucial victory in the war that has cost tens of thousands of lives over four and a half years.
The Syrian army and its allies are in the “last moments before declaring victory” in Aleppo, a Syrian military source told Reuters, after rebel defences collapsed on Monday, leaving insurgents in a tiny, heavily bombarded pocket of ground.
The bombardment of rebel areas of the city continued nonstop on Monday.
“The battle in eastern Aleppo should end quickly. They [rebels] don’t have much time. They either have to surrender or die,” Lieutenant General Zaid al-Saleh, head of the government’s Aleppo security committee, told reporters in the recaptured Sheikh Saeed district of the city.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, expressed “grave concern” over unverified reports of atrocities against a large number of civilians, including women and children.
In a statement, Ban stressed the obligation of all parties “to protect civilians and abide by international humanitarian and human rights law. This is particularly the responsibility of the Syrian government and its allies.”
The UN humanitarian adviser on Syria, Jan Egeland, said the Syrian and Russian governments must be held responsible for any atrocities committed by militias loyal to Assad.
The situation was described as a kind of “doomsday” by one resident, Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, a teacher living in the besieged districts who has been documenting the destruction of the city online for months.
The Syrian army said it controlled 98% of eastern Aleppo, where residents said they would face death if they stayed to face bombardment by artillery shells and fighter jets or torture and disappearance if they surrendered.
“Aleppo is being destroyed and burned completely,” said Mohammad Abu Rajab, a doctor in the besieged areas of the city, in a voice message. “This is a final distress call to the world. Save the lives of these children and women and old men. Save them. Nobody is left. You might not hear our voice after this. It is the last call, the last call to every free person in this world. Save the city of Aleppo.”
The advance by Assad loyalists was preceded by some of the most intense bombardment of the war, with non-stop artillery shelling and numerous airstrikes through Sunday night and Monday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said the regime had gained control of 90% of east Aleppo after seizing the neighbourhoods of Sheikh Saeed and Saliheen.
Thousands of people had fled the fighting towards government-controlled areas, it added. Thousands more are hemmed inside a dwindling pocket of land in the face of a lightning advance by the regime and crumbling rebel lines.
The observatory’s director, Rami Abdurrahman, said more than 60 civilians and fighters were killed in rebel-held neighborhoods of Aleppo on Monday alone.
Al-Hamdo implored the international community to save the children remaining in east Aleppo.
“I can tweet now but I might not do it forever. please save my daughter’s life and others. this is a call from a father,” he tweeted. “Understand this. I can’t simply surrender and being captive. I am speaking out and this is a crime. I might then ask death and not got it.”
“the last massage [sic]. Thanks for everything. we shared many moments. The last tweets were from an emotiomal [sic] father. Farewell, #Aleppo,” he concluded.
A local journalist whose organisation documented civilian deaths in the city said he feared imminent arrest as the regime closed in.
“We are terrified of the invasion,” he said. “There are only five neighbourhoods left and the regime is thinking of invading what’s left of the city and arresting all of us. May God grant us that we live longer so we can meet one day.”
A nurse whose civilian father and brother were killed by artillery shells within the space of a few hours said: “I cannot leave because I’m medical staff which means a terrorist in the eyes of the regime.
“I cannot forgive. It is better that God takes my life than to live in humiliation under those who murdered most of my family and my neighbours, and destroyed my country and street and robbed my home.”
Others who have been in touch with the Guardian in recent months did not respond to messages on Monday, as Assad’s forces swept through their neighbourhoods.
“People are under the rubble alive and no one can save them,” said Hamdo. “Some people are injured in the streets and no one can go to help them. The cries and fear of women and children [are] heard from the streets.”
The latest advances by Assad’s forces have brought them closer than ever to a major victory in the war. Aleppo, Syria’s former industrial and commercial capital, has been divided between rebel and government forces since 2012 and its fate has long been seen as a signal of the war’s momentum.
East Aleppo, which was estimated to house a quarter of a million civilians before the latest government offensive, has been under a tight siege for months. Rebel offensives to try to break the blockade have failed.
Many residents have been living in great deprivation. They have dwindling food stocks and a lack of fuel, water and electricity, and there are no functioning hospitals after they were bombed in the campaign.
On Monday, the rebels were reported to be contemplating an offer of withdrawal from Aleppo that had Russian and US backing. Reuters said that, under the terms of the deal received by some rebel officials, they would be allowed to leave bearing light arms to any area in Syria.
But Russia denied that an agreement had been reached and an opposition official contacted by the Guardian said his faction, one of the largest in Aleppo, had not received the offer. He said Russia was not interested in a deal that would spare civilians while pro-Assad forces made gains on the ground.
The rebels had proposed a five-day ceasefire to evacuate civilians and the wounded, but that was ignored by Assad and his allies.
“Let us be clear, the regime is insistent on committing a massacre in order to achieve a historic victory against its own people with Russian and Iranian aid,” said Bassam Mustafa, a member of the political office of the Noureddine al-Zenki militia group.
“Therefore, they will not accept any [offer of] safe passage. We challenge them for the thousandth time to discuss anything that is for the good of the civilians that they have been bombing with barrel bombs and chlorine.”
Even though the loss of Aleppo would be a huge blow to the opposition, which will be bereft of any major urban stronghold, there are doubts that the government will be able to consolidate its victories, which have been backed by Russian airpower, on the ground.
On Sunday, the government lost control of the historic city of Palmyra for a second time to Islamic State fighters, despite a wave of intense bombings by the Russian air force the night before.
But for the remaining residents in the rebel-held districts of east Aleppo, there are few choices left. “Doomsday, all of us are waiting, dying now in the last neighbourhood,” said Yasser, an activist in the besieged districts.
Author: Kareem Shaheen