ISTANBUL— As the Assad regime and Iranian-led Shiite militias captured the last districts still in opposition control Tuesday night, Russia and rebel leaders agreed on a cease-fire in embattled east Aleppo that will lead to the evacuation of civilians and their armed defenders, Turkish officials said.
Under an agreement reached with Turkish help, buses were to begin shuttling the beleaguered civilians to areas outside Aleppo, with moderate rebel fighters to follow, they said. Turkey, already the biggest host country with 3 million Syrian refugees, is planning to set up a tent city inside Syria to accommodate 80,000 Syrians fleeing Aleppo, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said.
But many details appeared to be unresolved, and Turkish officials called the accord “fragile.”
It wasn’t clear, for example, whether provision had been made for evacuating the fighters of Jabhat Fateh al Sham, formerly the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra force, whose presence in east Aleppo was the reason Russia has cited from attacking the old city. Also unclear who will supervise the transfer.
Turkish officials disputed accounts that Turkey and Russia would be the guarantors of the deal and said the U.N. will oversee the evacuation, but U.N. officials said this had not yet been decided. The local council in east Aleppo said the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent would play the supervisory role, but Turkish officials said it was not the case.
The deal was reached in behind-scenes talks between the Turkish MIT intelligence agency and the Russian military, but both took their signals from Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and his Turkish counterpart, who’ve had three phone conversations about the fate of Aleppo, according to Turkish news media.
Turkey, which has sympathized with and supported the moderate opposition during the five years of fighting, was bitterly critical of the Assad regime and on Tuesday accused it of directly attacking the civilian population and carrying out mass executions as it took territory in east Aleppo.
But with its own forces inside Syria and highly vulnerable as they take on both Islamic State extremists and a Kurdish militia allied with the United States, the Turks have been highly reluctant to take on Russia, despite its leading role in the air war against east Aleppo.
—With reporting by Duygu Guvenc from Brussels