Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani phoned his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad on Wednesday to congratulate him on the impending defeat of rebel forces in the battleground city of Aleppo, as leaders of other countires scrambled to save a ceasefire and allow civilians to escape the battered town.
“The victory in Aleppo… constitutes a great victory for the Syrian people against terrorists and those who support them,” Rouhani told Assad, according to his website.
The Syrian leader reportedly responded that Iran had stood “on the side of the Syrian people and government in its most difficult moments, and we will never forget it.”
Iran has not committed its regular army to the Syrian conflict, but its paramilitary Revolutionary Guards have played a crucial coordinating role.
The congratulatory call came as a planned ceasefire to allow civilians to leave last rebel-held pocket of Aleppo collapsed, leaving tens of thousands of civilians stranded in the besieged city under heavy bombardment.
Inside the city, shelling and air strikes sent terrified residents running through the streets.
“Bombing is ongoing, no one can move. Everyone is hiding and terrified,” activist Mohammad al-Khatib told AFP from inside the city.
“The wounded and dead are lying in the street. No one dares to try and retrieve the bodies.”
The evacuation, agreed under a deal brokered by Russia and Turkey, had been due to begin at 5:00 a.m. but was delayed, with buses parked outside rebel-held areas left waiting.
Fighting then erupted anew in the ravaged city, with Assad’s regime, the rebels and their foreign allies trading accusations of blame.
Talks were underway Wednesday to save the fraying deal but have yet to produce an agreement, a source close to Syria’s government said.
“When an agreement is reached, it will be announced by Syrian authorities,” the source told AFP.
A source with knowledge of efforts to resuscitate the deal said negotiations were ongoing among Syria, opposition backer Turkey, and regime allies Russia and Iran.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed Wednesday in a phone call that violations of the ceasefire deal should stop, Turkish presidential sources said.
“In the phone call, they stressed that the ceasefire agreement secured yesterday night should be put into practice (and) the violations of the deal must be stopped,” the sources said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov confirmed to RIA Novosti state news agency that the call took place.
Turkey, Russia and Syrian rebel groups on Tuesday had confirmed an agreement had been reached for civilians and opposition fighters to leave Aleppo, Syria’s second city.
However, deadly clashes erupted in Aleppo on Wednesday, putting the deal for the evacuation of rebel areas on hold.
Moscow, a key Assad ally that last year launched an aerial bombardment in support of his forces, said the Syrian army had resumed its operations in Aleppo after “an attack by the terrorists was warded off.”
But Erdogan accused Assad’s forces of breaking the deal and attacking civilians.
“We were hoping that a process of evacuation had begun for civilians and opposition from east Aleppo as a result of negotiations that I personally followed, unfortunately missiles have begun to be launched again,” the Turkish president said.
“Therefore, we remain cautious,” he said, adding that the implementation of the ceasefire was the “last hope” for the people in Aleppo.
Erdogan also hit out at the United Nations for its failure to create a safe zone inside Syria to shelter refugees.
“Hey, the United Nations, where are you?” he said.
“The situation on the ground is very fragile and complicated,” Erdogan said before the call.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also spoke to his US counterpart John Kerry on Wednesday, asking that he pressure rebel groups to leave the city.
Moscow has blamed rebels for violating the ceasefire, saying it expected opposition resistance in Aleppo to end in the next “two to three days.”
And a source close to the government said Damascus objected to the number of people leaving, claiming rebels had sought to raise it from 2,000 to 10,000.
But Yasser al-Youssef from the Nureddin al-Zinki rebel group said the regime and its ally Iran sought to link the deal to other issues including the fate of Fuaa and Kafraya, two Shiite-majority villages in northwestern Syria under rebel siege.
Turkey too accused Assad’s regime and its supporters of blocking the deal.
As booms of air strikes and artillery fire rang out in the city, an AFP correspondent in rebel areas saw panicked civilians running in the streets to find shelter, some hiding in the doorframes of damaged buildings.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported “very intense clashes on every front line” and said at least two people had been killed in rebel areas.
State television said rebel rocket fire on government-controlled areas had killed at least seven people.
Former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front said Wednesday evening that one of its suicide bombers detonated a car bomb at a regime position in southern Aleppo.
The Observatory also reported the attack but had no immediate information on casualties.
Before the fighting resumed, crowds of civilians could be seen gathered in the streets of rebel areas from the early hours, some clutching bags of belongings, to await evacuation.
Some had slept in the open, despite the cold and heavy rain, and many were hungry after weeks without regular meals because of dwindling supplies caused by the army’s siege.
Syria’s army has pressed a month-long assault that has seen it take more than 90 percent of the former rebel stronghold in east Aleppo.
Turkey, which has backed the opposition, said those leaving would be taken to Idlib province, which is controlled by a powerful rebel alliance that includes Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front.
The agreement came amid international concern about the plight of civilians in the city, and as the UN said it had reports of atrocities being committed by advancing government forces.
French President Francois Hollande joined Washington’s call for international observers to be sent in to oversee the evacuation.
Hollande said those trapped by the fighting should “be evacuated in a dignified and safe manner, under the supervision of international observers and in the presence of humanitarian organizations.”
Kerem Kinik, Turkey’s Red Crescent chief, told the official news agency Anadolu that 1,000 civilians who had been trapped at an Iranian militia checkpoint overnight as they were leaving Aleppo, had arrived in Idlib.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said on Tuesday that Ankara would “set up a tent city to accommodate up to 80,000 Syrian refugees fleeing Aleppo.”
The UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria (COI) said Wednesday it had received reports that opposition fighters were blocking civilians from fleeing Aleppo and using them as human shields.
In a statement, the COI said it had “allegations of opposition groups… preventing civilians from leaving as well as opposition fighters embedding themselves within the civilian population, thus heightening the risk to civilians of being killed or injured”.
It specifically implicated Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front and the powerful Ahrar al-Sham rebel group.
The COI, an independent investigative body set up by the UN in 2011, collects evidence on human rights law violations committed during Syria’s civil war.
In October, the UN human rights council mandated the COI to launch a special investigation into the Aleppo crisis.
Since then, government troops and their allies have waged a brutal offensive on Syria’s second city pushing the rebel resistance to the brink of collapse.
The COI also noted the grave allegations leveled against pro-government forces in Aleppo, including “summary executions, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and forced conscription.”
The UN said Tuesday said it had credible reports of at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, being executed in recent days.
Aleppo, a cultural and economic hub second only to Damascus in importance, had been split between a rebel-controlled east and government-held west since 2012.
It was unclear how many civilians remained in rebel territory, after an estimated 130,000 fled to other parts of Aleppo during the government advance.
More than 465 civilians, including 62 children, have died in east Aleppo during the assault, the Observatory said Wednesday in a new toll.
Another 142 civilians, among them 42 children, have been killed by rebel rocket fire on government-held zones in the same period, the monitor said.
Syria’s conflict has evolved from anti-Assad protests into a multi-front war that has killed 310,000 and drawn in world powers on all sides of the war.