ALEPPO, Syria: Russia said it would hold talks with Washington on Tuesday on a total rebel withdrawal from Syria’s Aleppo, where the army has made sweeping advances, but opposition factions have rejected any evacuation.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have seized two-thirds of the former rebel bastion in east Aleppo since they began an operation to recapture all of the battered second city in mid-November.
The assault has raised an international outcry, but Russia and China on Monday vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a seven-day ceasefire in the city.
Tens of thousands of east Aleppo residents have fled to other parts of the city to escape the fighting, which has raised widespread international concern.
The rapid regime gains have left opposition fighters reeling and come ahead of talks in Geneva on Tuesday on a rebel evacuation.
“During the Russian-American consultations the concrete route and timeframe for the withdrawal of all fighters from eastern Aleppo will be agreed upon,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier on Monday. “As soon as these routes and timeframes are agreed on, a ceasefire can come into effect.”
Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the two sides “are close to an agreement on the basic elements.”
But deputy US envoy Michele Sison suggested there was no deal, saying “we will not let Russia string along the Security Council.”
“We will continue bilateral negotiations [with Russia]to relieve the suffering in Aleppo, but we have not reached a breakthrough because Russia wants to keep its military gains,” she added.
Rebel groups swiftly rejected any talk of an evacuation.
Yasser al-Youssef of the Nureddine al-Zinki faction, a leading rebel group in Aleppo, described any such proposal as “unacceptable.”
“It is for the Russians to leave,” he told Agence France-Presse.
Moscow is a close ally of Assad’s government, and launched a military intervention in support of Damascus last year.
Government troops have also been bolstered by Iranian forces, fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement and Shiite fighters from other countries.
‘Revolutionaries won’t leave’
“The revolutionaries will not leave Aleppo and will fight the Russian and Iranian occupation until the last drop of blood,” said Abu Abdel Rahman al-Hamawi of the Army of Islam, another smaller rebel group active in Aleppo.
Rebels have been forced to evacuate several of their strongholds in Syria during the conflict, including a string of areas near Damascus in recent months.
In many instances, they have reached deals with the government after months of army siege and fierce fighting, agreeing to lay down their arms in return for safe passage to rebel territory elsewhere.
Among the most well-known evacuations was the 2014 exit of rebels from the Old City of Homs after a two-year government siege.
But if Washington and Moscow were to agree a deal for a rebel evacuation from Aleppo, it would mark the first time that the two powers, which back opposing sides in the war, have negotiated the withdrawal of opposition forces.
Estimates for the number of rebels in east Aleppo vary, with the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights putting the figure at 15,000 before the current assault began.
The UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura in October put the number at 8,000 rebels, saying around 900 of them belonged to the Fateh al-Sham Front, Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate previously known as Al-Nusra Front.
The loss of Aleppo would be the biggest defeat yet for opposition forces in Syria’s five-year civil war.