Last update: February 2023
[Main COI references: Security 2022, 2.2, pp. 82-99; COI Update 2022, 2, pp. 3-8]
The governorate of Aleppo is located in the north of Syria, bordering Idlib governorate to the west, Hama governorate to the south and Raqqa governorate to the east. In the north, it shares a 221-kilometre-long border with Türkiye. The governorate is divided in eight districts: Jebel Saman (where the largest city Aleppo is located), Afrin, A’zaz (Azaz), Al-Bab, Menbij (Manbij), Jarablus, Ain Al-Arab (Kobane), and As-Safira. As of February 2022, UNOCHA estimated the population of Aleppo governorate to be of 4 184 360 inhabitants and the population of Aleppo city to be around 2 million. Before the war, Aleppo city was the commercial and industrial capital of the country, with a population of around 2.5 million people. Approximately 1.38 million live in the areas under Turkish control. Approximately 1.38 million live in the areas under Turkish control. [Security 2022, 2.2.1, p. 82]
Minority communities present in the governorate include Christians, Kurds, Armenians and Turkmen. Both several different national and religious groups are present in Aleppo. Kurdish population is present in Aleppo governorate, in particular in the Aleppo city neighbourhoods of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiya and in Afrin district. It has been reported that Türkiye carried out a demographic change in Afrin area by empowering the SNA in forcing the Kurdish inhabitants of Afrin to leave the area, while thousands of rebels and their families from Eastern Ghouta were settled in Afrin following reconciliation by forcing Kurds to leave the area and settle Arab rebels. [Security 2021, 2.2.1, p. 81]
Background of the conflict
Control over different parts of Aleppo governorate fluctuated between GoS and anti-government armed groups, with international actors also playing a pivotal role. Between 2012 and 2016, the city of Aleppo remained divided between the GoS-controlled west and the areas in the east, controlled by anti-government armed groups. In December 2016, after a prolonged siege and with the military assistance of Russia, eastern Aleppo was recaptured by the GoS. In the northern part of Aleppo, in early 2014, Kurds established control in the districts of Ain Al-Arab (Kobane) and Afrin in 2014. After the advances of ISIL in Aleppo governorate, SDF and GoS, respectively backed by US and Russia, joined forces and managed to reclaim control of some parts of the governorate. Meanwhile, following two offensives in 2016 and 2018, Turkish troops and affiliated forces occupied other previously ISIL-held areas in the governorate in 2016 and 2018. Between April 2019 and March 2020, parts of western Aleppo governorate were recaptured through a GoS offensive. [Security 2021, 2.2.2, pp. 81-87]
Actors: control and presence
Multitude of actors continued to control different parts of the governorate where the situation is volatile and complex. All the major actors in the civil war are present in Aleppo. The dynamics between the actors can change rapidly and consequently the situation in the governorate.
The southern and central parts of Aleppo governorate, including the city of Aleppo, were under the control of pro-GoS forces. However, two Kurdish neighbourhoods in Aleppo city were under control of the SDF.
GoS and its allies have presence in areas controlled by the SDF in the northern part of the governorate where they have a joint military operation in fighting SNA/groups backed by Türkiye. This includes the areas of Manbij, Ain Al-Arab (Kobane) and Tal Rifaat.
Foreign actors allied with GoS including Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, were reported to have a military presence in the governorate of Aleppo, in areas controlled by GoS and also in SDF controlled areas. Russian and Iranian military sites were located in different parts of the governorate. The Russian forces were deployed in 12 different positions in Aleppo. They are located in the areas controlled by GoS and in Ain Al-Arab (Kobane), Manbij and Tal-Rifaat. Iran-backed militia had long been entrenched in Aleppo governorate and the IRGC and local militias had a strong military presence and influence in the governorate and the city itself. Iranian forces, including those of Lebanese Hezbollah, were located in the areas controlled by GoS as well as in the Tal Rifaat enclave controlled by the SDF/YPG. Iran has deployed forces to SDF-controlled northern Aleppo governorate.
Türkiye has continued to strengthen its forces and anti-GoS armed groups (SNA) in Aleppo governorate while preparing for a potential military incursion in northern Syria. Turkish-backed SNA controlled the area bordering Türkiye in between the cities of Afrin (‘Olive branch’), Azaz, Al-Bab and Jarabulus (‘Euphrates Shield’) in northern Aleppo governorate, and the areas west of Aleppo adjoining the anti GoS controlled areas in Idlib. Turkish forces are present in 57 different positions in the Governorate [Security 2022, 2.2.2, pp. 83 and 85]. During the first period of 2022 there has been an increase in conflict incidents between SDF and Turkish backed armed group [Security 2022, 1.5.2, p. 44]. Türkiye’s president Erdogan announced a new Turkish intervention in June 2022 in Tal Rifaat and Manbij [Security 2022, 2.2.2, p. 85].
HTS is the dominant armed group in the Idlib de-escalation area covering the areas controlled by anti-GoS armed groups in western Aleppo governorate. On 19 June 2022, HTS took control of several villages in rural southern and southwestern Afrin district, which marked the first time HTS fighters had entered into so-called Operation Olive Branch areas.
The presence of ISIL was also reported in the parts of Aleppo governorate controlled by the SNA. ISIL is also active in the GoS-controlled southern Aleppo governorate.
Nature of violence and examples of incidents
The multitude of actors and complexity of different enemy-lines makes the situation in Aleppo unpredictable. There are fighting and hostilities between the different groups. But there is also infighting between rival groups that are otherwise allied, especially in SNA-areas. Violent clashes within the SNA continued during spring 2022. [Security 2022, 1.4.2, p. 30]
Also, actors that otherwise are in conflict can be seen coopering in a united struggle against another actor, as can be seen in the cooperation between GoS and SDP against Türkiye and its allies. The capacity and strategic interests of all the foreign actors are also unpredictable.
The attacks are concentrated along the frontlines. These areas are in the west and south-west and in the north of the governorate. The situation in northern Aleppo is especially volatile and the civilians are caught between several conflicts. Hostilities escalated between GoS and anti-GoS armed groups and, in particular, Russian airstrikes targeting areas under Turkish/SNA control increased.
Aleppo city was under rocket attacks between June and July 2021, the first since March 2021.
In March 2022, a siege was put in place by GoS forces in two neighbourhoods of Aleppo city, Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiyeh.
Hostilities between Turkish and Turkish-backed forces on the one hand, and SDF and GoS and its allies on the other, increased especially in the areas of Tal-Rifaat, Manbij and A’zaz. Hostilities not only took place along the frontlines but also in the areas controlled by Turkish forces and SNA. Civilians have been killed as a result of both indiscriminate shelling and deliberate attacks [Security 2022, 2.2.3, pp. 88-91]. In May 2022, occasional escalations of violence took place between GoS and Turkish forces/SNA. Hostilities between SDF and SNA were also reported during spring and summer 2022. Russian forces targeted ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ and ‘Operation Olive Branch’ areas with airstrikes.
In June 2022, HTS took control over some of the areas controlled by SNA, resulting in civilian casualties. ISIL is present in this area and attacked SNA-affiliated persons and groups. They also carry out attacks in the southern part of Aleppo.
In July 2022, hostilities between GoS forces/Russia and anti-GoS armed groups escalated also in western Aleppo, with GoS forces stepping up their attacks on the region on a daily basis, and HTS and other anti-GoS armed groups bombing GoS-controlled areas in western rural Aleppo. [Security 2022, 2.2.3, p. 88]
The use of explosive weapons by GoS caused a high number of civilian casualties. Most of the IED attacks happened in Turkish controlled areas of Aleppo, often in markets and residential areas. [Security 2022, 1.5.2, p. 45, 2.2.3, pp. 91-92]
Airstrikes, clashes, shelling and rocket fire across the frontlines continued during August and September 2022 in Northern rural Aleppo.
In October 2022, HTS temporarily seized control of the Afrin region after having launched an armed operation against an SNA-affiliated armed group leading to the killing of 58 individuals, mostly militants.
Aleppo recorded the largest number of security incidents out of all governorates. ACLED recorded 2776 security incidents (average of 39.9 security incidents per week) in Aleppo governorate in the period from 1 April 2021 to 31 July 2022. The majority of the reported incidents were coded as ‘explosions/remote violence’ (1893), while 493 incidents were coded as ‘battles’ and 390 as ‘violence against civilians’. In the period 1st August – 31st October 2022, 995 out of the 3 069 security incidents reported in Syria took place in Aleppo. This represents an average of 79 security incidents per week.
Security incidents were recorded in all Aleppo governorate districts. The highest numbers of incidents took place in A’zaz, Afrin, Al Bab and Jebel Saman districts.
Civilian fatalities: data
The SNHR recorded 133 civilian fatalities in Aleppo in the nine months between April and December 2021. In January – October 2022, the SNHR recorded 174 civilian fatalities. This represented approximately four civilian fatalities per 100 000 inhabitants for the first ten months of 2022.
According to UNOCHA, between January and June 2022, IDP movements were concentrated mainly in north-west Syria, with 77-85 % of them taking place between the governorates of Aleppo and Idlib. During the first half of 2022, access to services and livelihoods was the main incentive for IDP movements within Syria. As of February 2022, the number of IDPs in Aleppo governorate was stated to be 1 283 773. 850 000 of these are located in the areas under Turkish control.
UNOCHA recorded approximately 147 000 IDP movements from Aleppo governorate in 2021, of which, approximately 125 000 occurred within the governorate. Approximately 70 000 movements from other governorates to Aleppo were reported, most of which from Idlib. In the first six months of 2022, UNOCHA registered 23 700 IDP movements from Aleppo governorate, the majority being returns within the governorate.
In 2021, approximately 31 000 IDP return movements were recorded to Aleppo governorate, most of which being within the governorate. In the first six months of 2022, 3 028 IDP return movements were registered by UNOCHA, most of which being within the governorate.
Further impact on civilians
Massive destruction on infrastructure in the governorate of Aleppo has been documented, with housing units and healthcare facilities being particularly affected. Schools and hospitals in Aleppo governorate were damaged as the result of the ongoing conflict. Multiple attacks on healthcare installations/facilities were reported in 2021 and one for the first trimester of 2022.
Water shortages in Al Bab affected 185 000 persons.
Aleppo is one of those Syrian governorates where explosive ordnance contamination is assessed as ‘widespread’ as the result of previous or still ongoing hostilities. Explosive munitions have been used extensively in the areas in and around Aleppo city. 87 % of communities in Aleppo governorate, and especially the communities in northern Aleppo, have reported explosive ordnance contamination in their areas, which is also reportedly affecting between 30-70 % of the farmland in the governorate. In 2021, children lost their lives in Aleppo city as the result of explosive ordnance contamination sustained before 2017. 204 deaths and 336 injuries in connection with landmine incidents were reported. [Security 2022, 2.2.3, pp. 97-98]
Looking at the indicators, it can be concluded that in the governorate of Aleppo, indiscriminate violence reaches such a high level that substantial grounds are shown for believing that a civilian, returned to the governorate, would, solely on account of their presence on its territory, face a real risk of being subject to the serious threat referred to in Article 15(c) QD.