As Aleppo lies in ruins, thousands wait to escape

ALISON STEWART, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: In Syria, the evacuation of civilians from the besieged city of Aleppo was meant to resume today. There are as many as 4,000 people from two villages, in the last section of rebel-held territory, who were seeking to leave. Once Syria’s most populous city, it is now largely in ruins and was recaptured this week by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. As night fell in Aleppo, there was no sign of the buses needed to carry out the evacuations.

For more on the situation, I am joined via Skype from Beirut in neighboring Lebanon by “New York Times” reporter Anne Barnard.

Anne, why was there such confusion and such a breakdown in the evacuation of people from eastern Aleppo?

ANNE BARNARD, NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER: Well, it’s not the first time a deal like this has been rocky to implement, and that’s because as this extremely violent and chaotic war goes on, even on each side, there’s a lot of fragmentation. So, you know, there isn’t one single leadership for rebel groups, and increasingly, there isn’t one single leadership for the pro-government forces.

You know, Russia and Turkey agreed to a deal. Turkey is one of the main backers of the rebels, and Russia is the most powerful backer of the Syrian government, having bailed it out with air strikes and political support. And, you know, at the same time, there are other crucial allies, like Iran, which has provided thousands of militia members to bolster the ground forces of the Syrian army.

There were other complications with the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. They were not fully cooperating with the implementation of that part of the deal, either, not letting the busses in to let people out of those villages in Idlib.

STEWART: And is there aid to civilians and the people who are still in Aleppo? Are the people helping them there, the people who have not been able to leave?

BARNARD: Well, the thing is, during the four years of the war, when Aleppo was a divided city, some form of alternate structure sprang up in eastern rebel-held Aleppo. There were international aid organizations. There were the local branch of the Syrian Red Crescent that continue to operate. There were NGOs sponsored by Syrians abroad and by Turkey and others.

In the last two weeks, when the rebel defenses really collapsed and there was pretty much mass chaos on that side of the line, a lot of people left to western Aleppo, to the government-held districts. Other people who didn’t want to go there fled deeper into the rebel-held districts, and that included many of these medical workers and aid workers. All those facilities basically were bombed or destroyed or fell into chaos. And some of the workers went to the other side. Some went to rebel areas.

The whole system has more or less collapsed. So, people are really in the worst state they’ve been in. There are thousands of civilians still left in there. They’re way waiting in cold and rain every day hoping for the buses to come to evacuate them.

STEWART: If we all remember back to how this all began in 2011, it really was a protest for civil rights and for government reform. Is there any of that political will left, or is that just gone by the wayside and people are just trying to survive?

BARNARD: Well, look, there are different issues. I think a lot of people went over to the government territories because they just couldn’t live with more years of bombardment. They couldn’t, you know, stay in an area that was full of increasing difficulties with daily life. Some of them definitely expressed to us that they got tired. The rebels did not deliver what they were supposed to.

And some people even said that rebels prevented them from leaving. Not everybody, as I said, rebels are not united. So in some areas, they said rebels helped them leave. And others said that rebels prevented them from leaving.

The point is, I think there are still people — there still exist many Syrians who believe in the kinds of civil government reforms that were initially asked for. There’s also many Syrians that wanted some kind of Islamist flavored government. You know, that’s something Syrians have to work out among themselves.

The issue is that I don’t think there is any political will on the other side, on the government side, to make any compromises or even discuss compromises at this point. They feel like they’re winning and they don’t see the need to change anything. In fact, they dispute the very idea that this whole thing started with legitimate political demands, and they paint the entire uprising as a foreign-led conspiracy that was extremist and Islamist from the beginning.

STEWART: Anne Barnard from “The New York Times” — thanks so much.

BARNARD: Thank you.