Aleppo under fire from all sides

By Richard Spencer, Louisa Loveluck

Ceasefire means little as rebels hold various factions at bay and children typically become the victims.
Children peer from a partially destroyed home in Aleppo. Photo / AP
Children peer from a partially destroyed home in Aleppo. Photo / AP

While the Great Powers were talking peace in gilded conference halls, Syria's children were nursing their wounds.

The wards of a clinic on the country's border with Turkey were full of victims of the latest upsurge of fighting around the embattled city of Aleppo, Syria's Stalingrad.

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The United States and Russia may have agreed a ceasefire, but there was little sign of it here.

In beds in adjoining wards were victims of all the war's participants: of the regime, of Russian jets, of Isis (Islamic State), of Kurdish militias, even of Turkish border police.

The line-up shows how beleaguered Aleppo and the northern countryside towards the Turkish border has become.

Syrian government forces yesterday captured another village near Aleppo, tightening the noose around rebel-held parts of the northern city, Syrian state television and an opposition activist group said.

Syrian state TV reported that Turkish troops fired five shells at the mountains of the coastal province of Latakia that recently witnessed intense clashes between government forces and Turkish-backed gunmen.

State TV and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops captured Tamoura, amid intense shelling and air raids by Russian warplanes.

Syrian troops have been advancing under cover of Russian airstrikes with the aim of besieging rebel-held parts of Aleppo.

If they are able to do so, it will be the biggest defeat for insurgents since the conflict began in March 2011.

After capturing Tamoura, the troops still have to take several more villages and towns to completely encircle the Aleppo rebels.

This is the territory of the "moderate rebels" - the 70,000 fighters Western countries thought could be turned into an army to fight Isis, but are now being crushed, with no one to help them, by overwhelming assaults from all sides.

Smoke rises over Saif Al Dawla district, in Aleppo, Syria. Photo / AP
Smoke rises over Saif Al Dawla district, in Aleppo, Syria. Photo / AP

Among those on the wards was Afaf, a 13-year-old girl.

Her body was gashed and pitted with shrapnel, but her grandmother calls her "the lucky one" - her brothers' skulls are fractured, her parents are in intensive care, and all are close to death.

She was hit by a Russian air strike, as was nearby Fouad Asil, a 24-year old who had lost both legs.

Then there was the teenage boy looking after his younger brother, lying in pain with smashed legs, hit by a regime missile as he tried to flee to rebel-held land from the Isis-held town of al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo.

"We thought it was hell in that place," he said, declining to give their names out of fear for the safety of family members still living under Isis rule.

"Life was terrifying for all of us, but it was my little brother who suffered the most. He loved to learn and they just wouldn't let him."

In another ward lay Shaimaa, a 5-year-old with one eye missing and the other destroyed.

Her 12-year-old brother was dead.

It was the Kurdish YPG militia who killed him and blinded her, spraying the minibus in which the family were trying to escape Aleppo with a hail of bullets. The militia were trying to cut a rebel supply line.

A member of Syrian opposition group linked to Damascus Front is seen with a cat in a damaged building as he takes position against Syrian regime forces in Aleppo. Photo / Getty Images
A member of Syrian opposition group linked to Damascus Front is seen with a cat in a damaged building as he takes position against Syrian regime forces in Aleppo. Photo / Getty Images

"She never saw her country in peacetime and now she'll never see anything again," her father, Mahmoud, said.

Paradoxically, these incidents coincided with peace talks in Geneva and the subsequent ceasefire deal concluded after a negotiation on Friday between John Kerry, US Secretary of State, and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov.

In fact, the terms of the deal illustrate exactly how Aleppo got into this state - its rebel defenders besieged from the south by the regime, the east by Isis, and the west by the Kurds, who are trying to set up an autonomous homeland and have found common cause with the regime.

Because the rebels are backed by the West, their ability to fight has been constrained by the US's determination to try anything for peace: weapons supplies have been predicated on their willingness to abide by the norms of war, and to put forward negotiating teams to seek a deal.

The regime, with its unconditional backing from both Russia and Iran, and determination to use all means necessary, has been able to roll back the rebels, squeezing them into a small space south of the Turkish border.

The ceasefire deal was almost universally mocked the moment it was declared - the moderate rebels were in fact the only group that had to lay down its weapons under its terms.

Syrians gather in a street that was hit by shelling, in the predominantly Christian and Armenian neighborhood of Suleimaniyeh, Aleppo. Photo / AP
Syrians gather in a street that was hit by shelling, in the predominantly Christian and Armenian neighborhood of Suleimaniyeh, Aleppo. Photo / AP

"Terrorists" such as Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, the local al-Qaeda branch, were specifically excluded, along with anyone fighting them.

Even Lavrov said yesterday that the ceasefire was less than likely to work.

"Forty-nine per cent," he replied when asked what chances he gave it.

New assessments last week concluded that as it approaches its fifth anniversary next month, the war has killed 470,000 people, and injured a further 1.9 million - the total comprising 11 per cent of the country's pre-war population.

Nevertheless, President Bashar al-Assad has said he intends to fight on to retake the whole country - ceasefire talks or no ceasefire talks.

A US Government spokesman called him "deluded", but Russian bombing continued yesterday.

Given the likely failure of both the ceasefire and the next round of Geneva peace talks, due to start on February 26, the question is what the rebels' western and Gulf backers will do next.

Children walk down a damaged street in Aleppo, Syria. Photo / AP
Children walk down a damaged street in Aleppo, Syria. Photo / AP

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain all pledged ground troops last week to the fight against Isis, and the Turkish Foreign Minister said yesterday that Saudi officers had visited the Incirlik air base in southeastern Turkey with a view to preparing to send jets.

That would be regarded as a hostile act by Assad.

He - almost certainly rightly - sees the real purpose of the Saudi intervention as ensuring that if US bombing does defeat Isis, Raqqa, Deir Ezzour and the other areas it holds do not return to regime rule.

The landscape of the war may change but the reality of it is unlikely to alter any time soon.

Neither Russia, with its strikes across the country, nor the US and Britain, with their bombing of Isis territory, indicated they would lessen attacks, while the rebels still have plenty of weapons.

- Telegraph Group Ltd - AP

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