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US-Backed Rebels Nearly Wiped Out In Aleppo

Syrian rebels are losing their grip on the brutalized city of Aleppo, with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly claiming imminent victory.

Aleppo has been at the epicenter of a civil war that's raged in Syria since 2011, when the wider Arab Spring movement led to a concerted effort to depose Assad.

In the five years since, the city of 2.3 million has been ravaged in the military tug-of-war among rebels, pro-government forces and jihadist groups like ISIS and al-Qaida. Most of the city's people have either been killed or driven from their homes, while the hundreds of thousands who remain have been hunkered down, weathering airstrikes and ground warfare that's destroyed the city's infrastructure and most of its hospitals.

In early December the United Nations warned of even more deaths if combatants on all sides do not agree to a cease-fire that would allow evacuations and the delivery of medicine and food to civilians caught in the middle of the fighting.

But now it appears the fiercest resistance may be over, at least for the time being.

Lt. Gen. Zaid al-Saleh, who leads the Syrian government's military forces in the area, told the BBC that U.S.-backed rebels don't "have much time" and had two choices: "surrender or die."

A rebel offensive in November had pushed back the government's forces, but the BBC report said the rebels have lost more than 90 percent of the territory they once held in the eastern part of the city, which was once Syria's most populous and economically prosperous urban center.

The city also serves as a focal point of the proxy war between regional and world powers trying to protect their interests in the region. Forces loyal to Assad have had the support of Russian air power and Iranian ground forces, while the U.S. has backed rebel forces with training, weapons and air support.

With both powers on opposite sides of the conflict, the civil war in Syria has been cited as a major contributor toward deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Russia, observers say. High-ranking officials from both countries met in Geneva on Dec. 10 and 11 to discuss a deal that would allow civilians and rebel fighters to leave the city, but the U.S. blamed Russia for rejecting the compromise.

The Russian Defense Ministry said government forces had allowed around 100,000 civilians to leave areas previously held by the rebels, and told the Syrian Observatory that around 2,200 rebels had surrendered.

Since mid-November, 415 civilians in rebel-held areas have been killed, and an additional 130 civilians died in rocket and mortar attacks by rebels targeting areas controlled by the government, according to the Syrian Observatory For Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization documenting human rights abuses and loss of life in the war-ravaged country. Forty children were among the dead in the latter strikes, the group said.

Among those still stuck in Aleppo was Abdul Kafi Alhamado, an English teacher who lives in the city.

"The situation inside the eastern part of Aleppo is literally doomsday," Alhamado told the BBC. "Bombs are everywhere, people are running, people are injured in the streets, no one can dare go to help them, some people are under the rubble."

In the meantime, Assad's forces continued to push further into rebel-controlled territories as the rebels themselves fell back. With Aleppo coming under government control, Assad's forces would have control of Syria's four largest cities.

"The battle of Aleppo has reached its end," Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory said. "It is just a matter of a small period of time."

Sources: BBC (2), Syrian Observatory For Human Rights, CNN / Photo credit: Voice of America News/Wikimedia Commons

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