Scenes from Aleppo

Syrians who were evacuated from Fuaa and Kafraya, two Shiite villages under rebel-siege on the northern outskirts of Idlib are welcomed by pro-government forces as they arrive in Jibrin on the eastern outskirts of Aleppo on December 19, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / George OURFALIANGEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images (George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT — Syrian and Russian forces are engaged in an all-out blitz to retake the eastern districts of Aleppo, the northern Syrian city that has become a major flash point in the country's five-year civil war. Here's what you need to know.

Why is Aleppo so important?

Aleppo was a key economic hub for the Damascus government before the war, and its recapture is vital to President Bashar al-Assad's aim of re-establishing full control over the country. When rebel forces captured the city’s eastern districts in 2012, they appeared ascendant, boasting that a march on Damascus would be next. Four years later, the area they control lies in ruins, and opposition fighters have been outgunned.

If government-allied troops fail to recapture the city, questions will be raised about their ability to win the war with force. It would also strengthen the hand of Islamist militant fighters inside the armed opposition, who have played the most important role in the defense of the area.

In one drone video, government-held west Aleppo appears verdant and bustling. Another shows rebel-held east Aleppo as a pock-marked wasteland. (Jason Aldag, Ishaan Tharoor/The Washington Post)

Who is fighting there?

Pretty much everyone. On the government side, Assad's forces are heavily supported by Iranian troops and Iran-backed militias, as well as by Russian warplanes and commanders. The rebel groups also fight in a coalition, one dominated by hard-line Islamist forces including Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki. But more moderate forces remain, some of them receiving U.S.-approved weapons.

Aleppo is a city divided. What are conditions like in the east and west?

The eastern, rebel-held districts have been subject to a crippling siege since July, leaving their 250,000 residents with severe shortages of food, medicine and fuel. Streets have been shattered by four years of government — and, more recently, Russian — airstrikes. Civilian areas and hospitals have been systematically targeted in the strikes. The area resembled an apocalyptic wasteland in recently released drone footage.

In government-held western Aleppo, civilians are also suffering from shortages — albeit less severe — and civilians close to the front line live in fear of rebel shelling.

How many people have died in the latest offensive?

Reliable numbers are hard to come by. In eastern Aleppo, the White Helmets rescue group said at least 300 civilians have been killed and more than 820 wounded since Nov. 15. More victims were lying under the rubble, out of reach until the bombing stopped. In western Aleppo, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday that at least 16 civilians — 10 of them children — were killed by rebel shelling.

Is a military solution the only option for Aleppo's warring parties?

The U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has proposed a political solution — rebel fighters leave eastern Aleppo through safe exits, government and Russian forces stop the bombing, and a council from the opposition-held districts takes control of the area. But the Syrian government has roundly rejected this. According to one minister, retaking Aleppo in full is now a key military priority.

Read more about Aleppo from The Washington Post: