DAMASCUS: Syria’s army took control of a rebel-held district in central Aleppo yesterday, after days of heavy air strikes that have killed dozens and sparked allegations of war crimes. In the first advance since announcing plans last week to retake all of the divided city, pro-government troops seized the Farafira district northwest of Aleppo’s historic citadel, a military source told AFP. “After neutralizing many terrorists… units are now demining the area,” the source said.
The push follows several days of Syrian and Russian air strikes on rebel-held Aleppo neighborhoods – some of the fiercest bombardment of the five-year conflict so far – after a ceasefire deal brokered by Moscow and Washington collapsed last week. The Aleppo maelstrom prompted Western powers to accuse Russia of committing possible war crimes, charges the Kremlin condemned as “unacceptable”.
In the latest broadside, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also condemned the air campaign. “The appalling attacks on Aleppo have shaken all of us, and the violence and the attacks we have seen… is morally totally unacceptable and is a blatant violation of international law,” Stoltenberg told a news conference in Bratislava.
On the ground in eastern Aleppo, an AFP correspondent said air strikes struck several neighborhoods simultaneously, including in Al-Shaar, where a five-storey building was levelled with a family stuck inside. One young girl, her body encased in rubble, was among the dead. Her father, in shock as rescue workers picked up her lifeless body, collapsed beside, saying: “She’s just sleeping. She’s just used to sleeping.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor, said that more than 155 people have been killed by Russian and regime bombardment on Aleppo city since the government announced its offensive last week. At least 11 civilians were killed yesterday in raids on the neighborhoods of Al-Shaar and Al-Mashhad, according to the Britain-based group. As well as the intensified violence, residents have been left reeling from food shortages and skyrocketing prices. The World Health Organization warned yesterday that medical facilities in east Aleppo were on the verge of “complete destruction”.
Analysts said yesterday Russia has decided to throw its military might behind the Syrian regime’s drive to recapture divided Aleppo in a bid to strong-arm Washington into accepting Moscow’s demands. “Negotiations with the Americans were just a smokescreen in order to buy time and prepare for the next phase of military operations,” said Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert at the University of Edinburgh. “For the (regime) loyalists, diplomacy is the continuation of war by other means,” Pierret said. Russia intends “to give Assad a decisive victory” and “eliminate any alternative, while depriving the opposition of what it considers its ‘capital'”, said Pierret. “An uprising chased from Aleppo will be relegated to nothing more than a peripheral insurrection.”
By backing government forces in Aleppo, Moscow seeks “to close that important pocket of rebels’ resistance at last”, said Igor Sutyagin, a Russia expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Outside Aleppo, only Idlib province remains a major opposition stronghold. Russia has long been a steadfast ally of Damascus, entering the conflict militarily last September to bolster Assad against rebels backed by Gulf nations and much of the West. It has also provided key diplomatic cover at the United Nations.
But Moscow now seems closer than ever to the regime, having decided after some hesitation to support the Assad government’s desire to retake Aleppo by force. “Russia has decided to go all out because it no longer believes in the possibility of collaborating with the United States in Syria,” said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In Damascus, analyst Bassam Abu Abdullah said Moscow was “now more in line with the Syrian government’s way of thinking”. “Russia was focused on the political solution, so it began dialoguing with the Gulf and the US and other countries, but it became clear that this is not possible,” said Abdullah, who runs the Damascus Centre for Strategic Studies and is close to the government. A victory in Aleppo would put Assad’s regime in a strong position ahead of any new negotiations, which UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura is still seeking despite the worsening conditions.
“Without Aleppo, Assad is nothing but a half-president. To really govern, he needs Aleppo,” said Balanche. Assad already controls most of the cities he considers key in Syria – Damascus, central Hama and Homs – with only Aleppo remaining. “The Russians and the Syrians would like to take control of all of Aleppo and only afterwards negotiate with the opposition,” said foreign policy analyst Fyodor Lukyanov. “Aleppo plays a key role” because the future “depends on the state of the front line that separates the fighting parties. And that line must be stable.”
The heavy bombing has raised some comparisons with Moscow’s strategy against Chechen separatists in the 1990s, which saw the capital Grozny nearly completely destroyed by air power and artillery. But analysts said the devastation was not yet on a similar scale. “Russia’s military tactics in Aleppo are nothing like those used in Grozny,” said Alexandre Golts, an independent military expert. “In Aleppo, the civilian deaths are in the dozens, if you believe the Western media, not hundreds like in Chechnya. It isn’t comparable.”
Russia’s ramped-up military involvement in Syria has drawn stinging criticism from the United States and others, but analysts say Moscow’s alliance with Damascus is firm and founded on key shared interest. “Assad can’t do anything without Moscow, and Russia in turn knows that without Assad it will be chased from the Middle East,” said Alexei Malachenko, a Russian Middle East specialist. “It’s a friendship of necessity.” – Agencies