U.N. Monitors Head to Syria As Mass Evacuations Continue

A child being evacuated from Aleppo. Photo: Ebu Eymen/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The United Nations Security Council has adopted a resolution for monitors to oversee the ongoing mass evacuations from Aleppo and neighboring villages in Syria, part of a complex people-swapping deal. Thousands and thousands are still awaiting their chance to escape Aleppo as President Bashar al-Assad shuttled in selfie-stick-carrying tourists in a crass attempt to feign normalcy in the worn-torn city.

Shortly after midnight on Sunday, buses were rolling again out of eastern Aleppo, ferrying civilians, fighters, and their families to the relative safety of rebel-held areas. At least 5,000 civilians left on 75 buses on Monday, reports The Guardian, with another convoy of 25 buses ready to leave. Since Thursday, more than 13,000 have been safely evacuated, though upwards of 7,000 remain trapped in Aleppo.

The evacuation of Aleppo is just part of an intricate compromise negotiated by Russia and Turkey that will see fighters and civilians loyal to President Bashar al-Assad given safe passage from the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya — predominantly Shiite villages that have been under attack by Sunni rebels — in exchange for rebel fighters, their families, and civilians being transported out of Aleppo to rebel-held territory on the outskirts. If the agreement goes as planned, thousands of people will be moved.

As of Monday evening, only about 500 of the 4,000 Shiite villagers had been evacuated.

But the precarious deal looked likely to fall apart before it even got started after bearded gunmen — presumed to be al-Qaeda-linked insurgents — set upon a convoy of buses leaving the Shiite villages in the neighboring province of Idlib on Sunday afternoon, setting at least five of them ablaze.

When the buses intended for Assad loyalists were attacked, all other evacuations stopped, stranding refugees on their way out of Aleppo.

After hours of waiting and uncertainty, the evacuees finally began to move again, with five full buses and one ambulance successfully leaving Aleppo just after midnight on Sunday night. Evacuations of the Shiite towns have also recommenced, but thousands are waiting for their chance out.

On Monday, evacuations continued throughout the day with thousands being ferried to relative safety. Among the evacuees from Aleppo were 47 children who had been trapped in an orphanage in the city. According to UNICEF, some of the children were in critical condition by the time they were able to escape the city.

Seven-year-old Bana Alabed, whose pleas for help on Twitter as his home was bombarded by air strikes made him something of a poster child for the destruction in Aleppo, was also saved.

Also on Monday, rebels announced that two new areas had been added to the deal, with civilians and fighters waiting to escape the rebel-held towns of Zabadani and Madaya along the Lebanon border.

The evacuations are the final step in what will be Assad’s total victory in Aleppo. Rebels had been able to hold out for years in the eastern neighborhoods of one of Syria’s largest cities, but, in recent weeks, have come under ever more brutal bombardment from Assad and his allies in the Russian air force. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has described the city as a “synonym for hell.”

Diplomats also made some progress on Monday, with Russia backing a United Nations Security Council plan to send monitors to observe the evacuations in Aleppo. The resolution, which passed unanimously Monday, will allow for those monitors to work with the many factions on the ground — from Assad’s pro-government coalition to the rebels, which include extremist groups — and report on the Aleppo evacuations. It’s an imperfect deal: Russia had promised to veto a French resolution calling for the United Nations to oversee the evacuations. Instead, monitors will have to depend on the disparate groups to gain access.

Discussing the agreement, the French ambassador François Delattre referenced one of the most notorious massacres in modern times. “This would give us collectively the tools to avoid another Srebrenica,” he said.

Meanwhile, in a bizarre attempt to show the world that Aleppo — now just a ruin of what was recently one of the Middle East’s most vital metropolises — is returning to normal, President Assad’s government bussed in tourists. They were photographed standing in the blown-apart wasteland, smiling and using selfie sticks.

U.N. Monitors Head to Syria As Mass Evacuations Continue