- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2016

U.S. and British defense chiefs said Thursday that they are sticking by their demand that President Bashar Assad must go as part of any settlement of Syria’s bloody civil war, just days after Mr. Assad’s forces scored one of their biggest victories over rebels in Aleppo.

An increasingly confident Mr. Assad on Wednesday praised Russian-backed government forces for the successful “liberation” of Aleppo — once the country’s largest cities and a major trading and economic hub. Until this week, it was a major stronghold for rebel forces fighting to overthrow the regime for the past five years.

In one interview, Mr. Assad even compared the ramifications of the battle for Aleppo to the birth of Christ and the revelation of the Quran.

“We don’t see a future of President Assad in Syria. Even if he defeats the opposition in Aleppo, there is no victory in bombing hospitals and restricting humanitarian aid and ending up in a country that you only control 40 percent of,” British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said in a joint press conference in London on Thursday with U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

Mr. Carter noted that the Syrian regime’s campaign to break the rebels’ backs in Aleppo “reflects an incredible brutality on the part of the regime and also their backers, including Russia.”

Regional observers and human rights advocates blame Russia’s devastating bombing campaign of rebel and civilian targets in eastern Aleppo as the turning point in the battle over the long-divided city.

The Obama administration has insisted that Mr. Assad, who is backed by both Russia and Iran, must be replaced as part of any negotiated settlement, saying the war has been so brutal that large parts of the Syrian population would never accept him as their leader. But that demand is losing force in the face of the Syrian government’s recent battlefield successes.

Mr. Assad claimed in a recent interview that Aleppo marked a “historic victory” that would be felt not just in Syria but across the region.

Responding to the Syrian president’s comments, Mr. Fallon replied simply, “That is no victory.”

Secretary of State John F. Kerry went further, calling the Assad regime’s campaign to stamp out armed opposition in Aleppo and the rest of the country tantamount to a war crime.

“The Assad regime is actually carrying out nothing short of a massacre,” Mr. Kerry said during a Thursday briefing at the State Department.

He made the comments as the first of thousands of Syrian civilians and rebel fighters began evacuating enclaves of Aleppo formerly controlled by anti-government factions.

Evacuees reportedly came under fire as they attempted to flee portions of the city from paramilitary forces loyal to the Assad regime.

Evacuations were initially slated to begin Wednesday as part of a cease-fire deal negotiated among Turkey, Russia and members of the Syrian resistance. But reports claiming Iranian-backed militias fighting on the regime’s behalf were preventing civilians from evacuating formerly rebel-held areas in the city threatened to scuttle the agreement.

New terms guaranteeing safe passage for Aleppo’s residents and rebel fighters, reached only after a frenetic eleventh-hour round of negotiations between all parties, salvaged the deal.

A Syrian opposition figure said local councils in Idlib and Aleppo provinces have been trying to find housing for the new refugees, but he said many will have to stay in camps, according to The Associated Press.

Turkey, which supports the opposition, promised to treat the wounded, Brita Haj Hassan, a member of Aleppo’s local council now living in exile in Brussels, told the AP.

But Mr. Assad has vowed to continue the fight to destroy all armed opposition to his regime, saying the Syrian army’s next target would be the northwestern city of Idlib, about 35 miles from Aleppo. A victory in Idlib would give the government control of the main land transportation links between Damascus and Aleppo.

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