Syr­ian army ad­vances in Aleppo, loses Palmyra to IS

IS recaptures Palmyra af­ter army with­draws forces

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Syria’s army pushed for­ward in Aleppo yes­ter­day as thou­sands fled rebel-held ar­eas but its forces lost ground to the south where the Is­lamic State group re­cap­tured the an­cient city of Palmyra. Af­ter a sud­den with­drawal by regime forces, IS ji­hadists made a light­ning-fast ad­vance across Palmyra, spark­ing new wor­ries for its re­main­ing an­cient trea­sures. Forces loyal to Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad have been fo­cused since mid-Novem­ber on sec­ond city Aleppo, where they have re­taken about 85 per­cent of the one-time rebel bas­tion in the city’s east.

Yes­ter­day, they pounded the shrink­ing rebel en­clave in Aleppo’s south­east with ar­tillery and air strikes, seiz­ing a large part of the Maadi district, a mon­i­tor said. The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said more than 10,000 peo­ple had fled the re­main­ing re­bel­held dis­tricts since mid­night, head­ing to govern­ment-run west Aleppo and newly re­taken ar­eas in the city’s north and cen­tre. An es­ti­mated 120,000 peo­ple have poured out of east Aleppo since late Novem­ber, ac­cord­ing to the Bri­tain-based mon­i­tor. State news agency SANA said at least 4,000 peo­ple had fled rebel dis­tricts in just hours yes­ter­day and were taken by bus to tem­po­rary shel­ters. Heavy bom­bard­ment on the east could be heard through the night, rat­tling win­dows across the city in the west, an AFP cor­re­spon­dent said.

Army with­draws from Palmyra

US and Rus­sian of­fi­cials were ex­pected to con­tinue talks in Geneva yes­ter­day on try­ing to reach a cease­fire in Aleppo, but a week of in­tense diplo­matic ef­forts have failed to stem the fight­ing. Backing from Moscow, which launched an air war in sup­port of As­sad last year, has been cru­cial in the Syr­ian army’s abil­ity to make gains across the coun­try.

Rus­sian raids overnight bol­stered Syr­ian sol­diers fight­ing off an IS of­fen­sive on Palmyra, the renowned UNESCO World Her­itage site in cen­tral Syria. But the ji­hadists launched a fresh at­tack yes­ter­day, the Ob­ser­va­tory said, re­cap­tur­ing all of Palmyra af­ter Syr­ian armed forces pulled out.

“De­spite the on­go­ing air raids, IS re­took all of Palmyra af­ter the Syr­ian army with­drew south of the city,” said Ob­ser­va­tory head Rami Ab­del Rah­man. The IS-linked Amaq news agency also re­ported that IS re­gained “full con­trol” of the city yes­ter­day af­ter tak­ing the citadel, which over­looks Palmyra from a strate­gic hill­top.

Cap­tur­ing Palmyra from IS in May was con­sid­ered a ma­jor sym­bolic vic­tory for As­sad’s forces-and for its Rus­sian ally. Rus­sia has come un­der se­vere crit­i­cism in the West for its con­tin­ued po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary sup­port for Da­m­as­cus as the regime pur­sues its all-out as­sault on east Aleppo. Moscow says it is con­sult­ing with Wash­ing­ton on the terms of a cease­fire in the city af­ter a full rebel with­drawal, but there has been no sign of an agree­ment so far.

‘Yes to peace’

Pope Fran­cis yes­ter­day made a heart­felt call for an end to vi­o­lence in Aleppo and across war-rav­aged Syria. “I ap­peal to all to choose civ­i­liza­tion: no to de­struc­tion, yes to peace, yes to the peo­ple of Aleppo and Syria,” he said. At least 413 civil­ians have been killed in east Aleppo since the Novem­ber 15 start of the of­fen­sive, ac­cord­ing to the Ob­ser­va­tory, and 139 killed in rebel rocket fire on the city’s west.

With such heavy fight­ing, the re­tak­ing of Aleppo by As­sad’s forces ap­pears to only be a mat­ter of time. “It looks now as if sadly Aleppo will fall,” British De­fense Sec­re­tary Michael Fallon told BBC tele­vi­sion yes­ter­day. The loss of east Aleppo will deal the big­gest blow to Syria’s op­po­si­tion since the start of the coun­try’s civil war in 2011. “We’re now past the point where the op­po­si­tion has any hope of pulling things back,” said Yezid Sayigh, a se­nior as­so­ciate at the Carnegie Mid­dle East Cen­ter in Beirut. As­sad “will have in ef­fect bro­ken the back of the armed op­po­si­tion... and the idea that the regime can be over­come mil­i­tar­ily will be fi­nally put to rest.” Af­ter meet­ings in Paris on Saturday, Western and Arab pow­ers called for talks be­tween the regime and op­po­si­tion to end the war.

US Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry, who called the regime’s bomb­ings of Aleppo “war crimes”, said the time was ripe for a return to ne­go­ti­a­tions. Now that the rebels “are about to lose Aleppo, con­ceiv­ably... I think the best thing they can do is get to the ta­ble and ne­go­ti­ate. Be­cause they can still win a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment that hon­ors the fight and all they’ve in­vested,” Kerry said.

—AFP

DOUMA: A Syr­ian youth cleans a room at a makeshift hospi­tal fol­low­ing a re­ported govern­ment airstrike on the rebel-held town of Douma.

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