The army has said it has retaken full control of Syria’s devastated second city Aleppo, scoring its biggest victory against opposition forces since the civil war erupted in 2011.
The announcement came on Thursday after a landmark evacuation deal that put an end to a ferocious month-long offensive waged on east Aleppo by government forces and allied militia.
An army statement said the general command “announces the return of security to Aleppo after its release from terrorism and terrorists, and the departure of those who stayed there”.
A rebel official spoke of a “great loss” for the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. “On the political level, this is a great loss,” Yasser al-Youssef of the Nureddin al-Zinki rebel group told AFP. “For the revolution, it is a period of retreat and a difficult turning point.”
Referring to Assad’s closest allies, Ahmed Qorra Ali of the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group said: “Aleppo is now under the occupation of Russia and Iran.”
The army announcement came after state television reported that the last convoy of four buses carrying rebels and civilians had left east Aleppo and arrived in the government-controlled Ramussa district south of the city.
Earlier, the Red Cross said more than 4,000 fighters had left rebel-held areas in the final stages of the evacuation. The loss of east Aleppo is the biggest blow to Syria’s rebel movement in the nearly six-year conflict, which has killed more than 310,000 people.
It puts the government in control of the country’s five main cities: Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Damascus, and Latakia. Syria’s conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011 but spiralled into a civil war after a brutal government crackdown on dissent.
It has drawn in proxy powers and attracted foreign jihadists, but successive attempts to negotiate a political end to the conflict have failed.
Assad’s victory in Aleppo is a boon for his allies in Moscow and Tehran and a defeat for the opposition’s backers, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and some Western states.
Because of the intensity of these global rivalries particularly between Russia and the United States the international community struggled for years to respond to the bloodshed in Syria.
“The liberation of Aleppo is not only a victory for Syria but also for those who really contribute to the fight against terrorism, notably Russia and Iran,” state news agency SANA quoted Assad as saying before the army announcement on Thursday.
The evacuation had been hampered by heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures. The United Nations said it had deployed observers to monitor the final evacuations, under a Security Council resolution adopted on Monday.