Fears grow in east Aleppo as govt forces close in

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Worldwide -

SYR­IAN govern­ment forces and al­lied fighters ad­vanced fur­ther into rebel-held Aleppo on Mon­day, press­ing an of­fen­sive in de­fi­ance of in­ter­na­tional con­cern for the fate of the city and its be­lea­guered civil­ians.

“At least 36 peo­ple were killed in Mon­day’s bomb­ing,” res­cue worker Ibrahim Abu Leith said. “These are the most vi­o­lent at­tacks we’ve seen in five years.”

The re­cap­ture of the rebel-held east, which fell from govern­ment con­trol in 2012, would be the govern­ment’s most sig­nif­i­cant vic­tory since the con­flict be­gan more than five years ago.

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity ap­peared un­likely to halt the govern­ment’s ad­vance, de­spite ex­press­ing out­rage over ris­ing civil­ian deaths and the tar­get­ing of hos­pi­tals and res­cue-worker fa­cil­i­ties in the east.

Geert Cap­pelaere, re­gional di­rec­tor for the UN’s chil­dren’s agency, said more than 100 000 chil­dren were trapped. “Chil­dren should not be dy­ing in hos­pi­tals be­cause of bombs, and they should not be dy­ing in schools.”

Rebel forces have steadily lost ground since Moscow, a key backer of Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad, in­ter­vened to bol­ster his govern­ment last year.

Ac­tivists and the UK-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said on Mon­day that govern­ment forces, backed by Ira­nian and Rus­sian troops and fighters from Le­banon’s Hezbol­lah, cap­tured the eastern part of the Masakan Hanano neigh­bour­hood.

“It is the most im­por­tant ad­vance in­side the eastern neigh­bour­hoods that the regime has made so far,” said Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory di­rec­tor Rami Ab­del Rah­man.

“If they take con­trol of Masakan Hanano, the regime will have line-of-fire con­trol over sev­eral re­bel­held neigh­bour­hoods and will be able to cut off the north­ern parts of rebel-held Aleppo from the rest of the op­po­si­tion-held dis­tricts.”

Ab­del Rah­man said that the ad­vance had both strate­gic and sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance, be­cause Masakan Hanano was the first neigh­bour­hood to fall to rebels in 2012.

Syria’s Al-Watan daily, which is close to the govern­ment, de­scribed the neigh­bour­hood as the “big­gest and most im­por­tant strong­hold of the gun­men” in Aleppo.

On Sun­day, Da­m­as­cus re­buffed a United Na­tions truce plan for Aleppo that would see the east of the city tem­po­rar­ily ad­min­is­tered by the op­po­si­tion, say­ing it would “re­ward ter­ror­ists”.

Once Syria’s eco­nomic pow­er­house, Aleppo has been rav­aged by the con­flict that be­gan with antigov­ern­ment protests in March 2011.

But the the UN’s Syria en­voy has warned that a new as­sault could spark a fresh hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe, prompt­ing an ex­o­dus among the 250 000 peo­ple who re­main in the east, trapped un­der regime siege.

Govern­ment forces have pounded east Aleppo with air strikes, bar­rel bombs and ar­tillery fire since last Tues­day, in a bar­rage that has killed more than 375 peo­ple in Aleppo city and its sur­round­ing coun­try­side, ac­cord­ing to Abu Leith from the first re­spon­der group known as the “White Hel­mets” that op­er­ates in re­bel­held ar­eas.

No aid has en­tered the east since govern­ment forces sur­rounded it in July, prompt­ing se­vere food and fuel short­ages in op­po­si­tion-held neigh­bour­hoods as win­ter weather be­gins to set in.

A Euro­pean di­plo­mat told the AFP news agency that the fall of east Aleppo ap­peared to be a mat­ter of time.

“Now, it’s just a ques­tion of how long they can hold on,” the di­plo­mat said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity.

“There is noth­ing to eat, no more hos­pi­tals, and the bom­bard­ment is non-stop. They are un­der very strong pres­sure.”

Back­ers of the op­po­si­tion, in­clud­ing Wash­ing­ton, have shown lit­tle sign that they will in­ter­vene, be­yond crit­i­cis­ing Da­m­as­cus and its al­lies over civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.

UN hu­man­i­tar­ian chief Stephen O’Brien, brief­ing the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil on Mon­day about the sit­u­a­tion in Aleppo, said con­di­tions in the rebel-held sec­tor of the city had gone from “ter­ri­ble to ter­ri­fy­ing and are now barely sur­viv­able by hu­man be­ings.”

“Let me be clear, we are not just see­ing a re­sump­tion of vi­o­lence in Aleppo. This is not busi­ness as usual. What has been un­leashed on civil­ians this past week is yet an­other low in an un­re­lent­ing, in­hu­man on­slaught, and it is as heart­break­ing as it is not in­evitable,” said O’Brien.

“These par­ties to the con­flict are — all of them — choos­ing to do this. It is civil­ians who pay the price.”

On Sun­day, US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama said that he was “not op­ti­mistic about the short-term prospects in Syria”.

“Once Rus­sia and Iran made a de­ci­sion to back As­sad in a bru­tal air cam­paign . . . it was very hard to see a way in which even a trained and com­mit­ted mod­er­ate op­po­si­tion could hold its ground for long pe­ri­ods of time,” he said. — Al Jazeera

Bashar al-As­sad

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