Syrian rebels launched a deadly attack on the city of Aleppo as residents supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad celebrated the anniversary of his recapture of the strategic metropolis still marred by violence.
Shells fired by insurgents fell Thursday on a number of southern neighborhoods, reportedly killing and injuring "a large number of people," according to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The U.K.-based monitor initially confirmed the deaths of about three children, all from the same family, but noted that the number would likely increase due to a collapsed building and ongoing rescue operations, which recovered scores of victims in critical condition. Citing local sources, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency confirmed the carnage caused by "the mortars of terrorism and hatred."
While media both supportive and opposed to the Syrian government carried news of the assault, they offered two different narratives regarding the events that took place one year ago, launching Aleppo into international headlines and paving the way for Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian allies, to retake most of his country from the rebels and jihadis trying to overthrow him since 2011.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights noted that Assad's December 2016 victory in Aleppo came only after the "death and the injury of hundreds of citizens" and a "massive displacement that included tens of thousands of civilians and fighters" from Aleppo to the rebel-held, northwestern province of Idlib. The Syrian Arab News Agency described a "great victory" that left the city "entirely free from terrorism and terrorists" and did not disrupt ongoing festivities. The Syrian military organized a massive rally Thursday in the central square of Saadallah al-Jabiri to commemorate the win.
The outcome of the battle of Aleppo, which was first seized by rebels in 2012 and became the site of a years-long series of clashes between rebels, jihadis and pro-government forces, marked a major turning point in the conflict. Following the 2011 uprising, rebels backed by the West, Turkey and Gulf Arab states, and jihadis, including affiliates of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) had forced the Syrian armed forces to retreat from the vast majority of the country. These gains were reversed, however as a 2014 Russian military intervention boosted Syrian troops and pro-government militias, including Iran-backed Shiite Muslim movements.
The Syrian military and its allies claimed a series of victories on both the rebel and jihadi fronts as alliances between opposition forces collapsed due to growing radicalism and dwindling foreign support. In July 2016, the Syrian military and its allies laid siege to Aleppo for the second time, with Russian warplanes bombarding the city. Amid accusations of atrocities from both sides, the pro-government axis ultimately forced rebels into a surrender. Insurgents who did not give up their arms were transferred to Idlib in exchange for the majority-Shiite Muslim residents of Al-Foua and Kefraya, two villages under siege by the mostly Sunni Muslim rebels.
Supporters of Assad praised the victory for allowing the religiously and ethnically diverse city of Aleppo to celebrate its first Christmas in five years. A year later, as Christmas again came to the war-torn city, Turkey, now the only major sponsor of the insurgent Free Syrian Army, joined Assad allies Russia and Iran for the eighth round of talks negotiating an end to the nearly seven-year conflict in the Kazakh capital of Astana, Reuters reported Thursday. Assad has since restored control over the majority of the country, leaving much of the north in the hands of the U.S.-allied, mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, and pockets of rebel control elsewhere, including Idlib and the western outskirts of Aleppo.
Moscow's success in Syria throughout the past year has placed into question the role of U.S. forces, whose presence the Syrian government considered illegal. The separate campaigns led by Russia and the U.S. to destroy ISIS have relegated the militants to a shrinking bastion of rural territory between Iraq and Syria, but the Pentagon has suggested it would stay even after ISIS was totally defeated, infuriating the axis of Russia, Iran and Syria.
Russia's formation of the Astana peace process and the upcoming Syrian People's Congress or Syrian National Dialogue Congress also has sought to outpace the West on the diplomatic level. Russia has entered into talks with Pentagon-backed Kurdish forces who have a complex relationship with the Syrian government and have faced attacks by Turkey-backed Syrian rebels. Turkey, which considered the Kurdish nationalist militias of the Syrian Democratic Forces to be terrorist organizations, has warned both the U.S. and Russia over the degree of Kurdish control it wished to see along the Turkey-Syria border.
While tensions remained high between Syrian pro-government and Kurdish forces, local activist media recently reported alleged agreements to restore some Syrian government control to Kurdish areas of Aleppo, where Kurdish fighters once fought alongside Syrian troops during the latter stages of last year's battle. Syria's main Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), also has agreed to attend peace talks proposed by Russia to be held in the Black Sea city of Sochi.
"We will attend Sochi and every other meeting that concerns the Syrian crisis as representatives of the people’s will," a PYD official Sihanouk Depo told Reuters on Thursday.
Kurds, who have long complained of political and cultural oppression under Assad's government, have found themselves alienated by ultraconservative Sunni Muslim and Arab nationalist currents of rebel groups. These criticisms of the opposition have been echoed by Syria's Christian community, much of which has rallied behind Assad since the early days of the war and has struggled to assert its identity throughout the conflict.
As the holidays approached, Syrians could be seen putting up Christmas trees in the war-torn city of Homs and in Damascus, where violence continued between the Syrian military and rebels in the outskirts. In one popular coffee shop in the capital's Old City, citizens have recently taken the opportunity to adorn a Christmas tree with wishes to be reunited with loved ones and an end to a crisis that has already killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.
"My wish this year is like every year: May God protect you and make this time pass quickly so that we could return and sit down in the same place... I will miss you so much...Your fiancé," one note written on a pink piece of paper read, according to China's state-run Xinhua News Agency, which visited the site and spoke to patrons.
"I wish for peace and stability in 2018 for me and Damascus," another paper read, with a third bearing the message: "I pray to God to stop the mortar shelling."
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