On Thursday, thousands of rebel fighters and civilians were evacuated from eastern Aleppo in green Syrian government buses and ambulances, under the terms of a cease-fire negotiated earlier in the week by Russia and Turkey. Thousands more were lined up Friday to be transported through government-held areas of Aleppo to rural Idlib province. (Update: The evacuations were suspended Friday morning, with Syria blaming the rebels.) The reported number of opposition forces and civilians evacuated so far varied — the Red Cross counted about 4,000 civilians, Syria's state news agency put the number at 2,300 rebel fighters and their families, and Russia said 6,462 people have been bussed out.
Steffan de Mistura, special United Nations envoy to Syria, said 50,000 people, including 40,000 civilians, remain in rebel-held Aleppo, and 10,000 will be evacuated while the others are relocated to government-held parts of the city. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak estimated Friday that 80,000 to 100,000 people want to leave Aleppo under the cease-fire, adding that "Idlib has no physical capacity to accommodate so many people." He confirmed that "20 buses from Aleppo have reached the safe zone under control of the Free Syrian Army in Idlib."
When the evacuation of Aleppo is complete, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will control the entire city for the first time since 2012, and in a video statement Assad hailed the "liberation" of the devastated former commercial center. "I want to confirm that what is happening today is history that is being written by every Syrian citizen," he said, comparing the event to the birth of Christ, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the revelation of the Quran. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, whose repeated attempts to negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war all fell apart, accused Assad and his allies — including Russia — of committing "nothing short of a massacre" in Aleppo, adding that the world will be watching how Syria and allied forces treat the evacuated civilians and fighters, and predicting that the fall of Aleppo won't end the five-year-long conflict.
The fighters and civilians leaving Aleppo aren't out of danger. "Idlib province, mostly controlled by hardline Islamist groups, is not a popular destination for fighters and civilians from east Aleppo, where nationalist rebel groups predominated," Reuters reports, and Syrian forces and Russia have indicated that Idlib will be their next target. "For the Russians it's simple," said a senior European diplomat. "Place them all in Idlib and then they have all their rotten eggs in one basket."