BEIRUT – For days, the eastern half of Aleppo has been enveloped in the dark and acrid smoke of burning rubber. Residents have been setting fire to tire after tire in a desperate attempt to disrupt the near constant airstrikes on the besieged side of their city.
For the past four years, Syria’s largest city has been split between the eastern rebel-held area and the western government-controlled parts. In early July, eastern Aleppo came under siege when forces loyal to the Syrian government backed by Russia cut rebels’ access to their last supply route. Since then, nearly 300,000 people remain in the eastern part of the city with dwindling resources and near-constant aerial bombardments.
“The situation here is psychotic, at the very least,” Lina Shamy, an opposition activist in eastern Aleppo, told Syria Deeply. “The airstrikes are constant, continuous. I can’t remember a single hour passing without the sound of warplanes.”
— أَحمَد بريمو (@PrimoAhmad) August 2, 2016
In the two weeks following the encirclement of eastern Aleppo, at least 99 civilians, including 25 children, have been killed, with the majority of the victims dying due to the aerial attacks, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. The airstrikes showed no signs of stopping or slowing down, so residents of eastern Aleppo began burning tires in hopes of confusing government and Russian aircraft. The movement has resonated strongly with the residents of Aleppo, said Shamy, and civilians of all ages are participating.
Indiscriminate air raids on eastern Aleppo have almost become routine, Shamy said. “I’ve noticed that children no longer care when they hear a warplane approaching, and keep playing outside,” she said. Only “once it gets close, [do] they run inside a building for shelter.”
Despite the dark smoke from the burning tires, the warplanes have still been able to target civilian areas. Between Thursday and Friday, some 16 civilians, including four children, were killed by Syrian government and Russian airstrikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“It is more a form of civil disobedience and expression than actually being able to stop the planes,” said Ameen al-Halabi, a photographer working in eastern Aleppo.
The dense smoke has, however, been an inadvertent blessing for rebel fighters, who, without their own air force, are battling forces allied with the Syrian government on the ground while being targeted from the sky. With frontlines as narrow as 330 feet (100 meters), the smokescreens make it more difficult for warplanes and helicopters to target rebels on the ground, Halabi said.
“With the thickness of the smoke, they [the government] cannot see which position is manned by rebels and which by government forces,” Halabi said.
Rebels launched a new offensive on western government-held territories on Sunday in an attempt to break the siege on the eastern side. Clashes were ongoing into the end of the week, as government forces countered the short-lived rebel gains in the southwestern outskirts of Aleppo. As of Tuesday night, at least 40 civilians have been killed on both sides of the city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
— FSA News (@FSATruth) August 1, 2016
Last week was the worst for Aleppo’s hospitals since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, according to the global nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Syrian government forces launched six attacks on hospitals in and around Aleppo during the week of July 23, killing patients and further debilitating the city’s crumbling medical infrastructure.
“Destroying hospitals is tantamount to signing thousands of death warrants for people now stranded in eastern Aleppo,” said Widney Brown, PHR’s director of programs. “The bombings, the lack of humanitarian aid, and the failure of the United Nations to deliver any kind of assistance means the death toll may soon be catastrophic.”
Nearly 95 percent of the city’s doctors have fled, been killed or detained, with only 35 doctors left in the eastern side of the city.
“The ratio right now of doctor to patient is 1 to 11,400,” said Adham Sahloul, advocacy officer at the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a nongovernmental organization providing medical aid in Syria.
Medical supplies, as well as food and fuel, are critically low in the besieged parts of Aleppo, with the U.N. aid chief Stephen O’Brien warning that food in Aleppo will run out by mid-August. Russia announced it would open humanitarian exit corridors on July 28 to allow civilians and surrendered fighters to leave eastern Aleppo. However, the U.N. has suggested they should run the corridors instead, and have called for a 48-hour truce to allow people to leave safely.
Not everyone wants to leave, however. Shamy said residents like herself do not trust the Syrian government or their Russian allies, adding that only a couple of hundred of eastern Aleppo’s residents have used the corridors so far. Human Rights Watch released a statement saying the corridors cannot be used to justify attacks on civilians who remain in besieged Aleppo.
— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) August 1, 2016
“Many civilians may be unable or afraid to leave, and those who don’t or can’t evacuate remain entitled to protection from attack,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Fearing the worst, shops in besieged Aleppo are rationing what they still have, said Shamy. Families are not allowed to buy more than 2.2lbs (1kg) of each basic supply in an effort to stretch their resources as long as possible. Getting more aid will not solve the problem either, Sahloul, the SAMS official, said.
“It still does not alleviate the structural issues,” said Sahloul, pointing out that Russian airstrikes hit a warehouse containing emergency food supplies last month. “The skies are not safe.”