Aleppo residents 'left to fend for themselves'
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President Bashar al Assad has accused Turkey of sabotaging a ceasefire for Aleppo as rebels intensify attacks on the city’s western, regime-held districts. Residents across the besieged town now fear they have been abandoned to a bloody fate.
In a rare interview with Western media, Assad said the government in Ankara pressured rebels to reject a truce deal by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, effectively prolonging the devastating struggle for control of Syria’s second city.
“The Turks told the factions – the terrorists that they support and they supervise – to refuse to cooperate with De Mistura” the Syrian leader told the Swedish newspaper Expressen in comments published on Friday.
Meanwhile, residents of Aleppo appealed for international help as Syria’s four-year armed conflict between forces loyal to Assad and splintered rebel factions raged their city.
Syria’s former economic hub, Aleppo, initially avoided the violence that swept across much of the country starting in the spring of 2011. But from July 2012 the eastern part of the city became a target of intense fighting and bombing campaigns. Today it is one of the main battle fronts of the war, with the eastern districts controlled by rebels and western ones in regime hands.
While the eastern neighbourhoods have been routinely bombed by Assad loyalists, residents of western Aleppo have, thus far, remained relatively safe. That changed on April 10, the day rebels began launching a barrage of rockets westwards, including into the predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Sulaymaniyah.
The city’s Maronite Cathedral and the Episcopal building belonging to the Melkite Christian community were damaged in the rocket attacks. Aleppo’s Catholic and Orthodox bishops issued on April 14 a joint appeal for help, lamenting their city had become a “laboratory for devastating weapons”. They urged the warring sides to spare them from the “unprecedented” death and destruction.
According to Syrian observers the rise in violence in Aleppo is the logical continuation of the rebels’ takeover of the key town of Idleb at the end of March.
“Encouraged by their victory in Idleb, the rebels think now is the time to take Aleppo,” Fabrice Balanche, director of France’s Mediterranean and Middle East Research Group (GREMMO), told FRANCE 24. “They are also enjoying resurgent support from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and making use of ultra-sophisticated weapons.”
The rebels have also adopted a strategy they learned from their enemies. Assad’s regime has long implemented a similar war strategy throughout the country: bomb rebel-held areas to force civilians to flee, then lay siege to the area, often using hunger as a weapon of war.
“The rocket attacks push people living in the pro-regime neighbourhoods to leave, and then [rebels] cut the water to these districts. Aleppo’s water distribution station is located in rebel-held territory,” GREMMO's Balanche said, noting electricity has also been cut, sometimes for dozens of days.
As the rebel offensive intensifies, a rumour has been spreading in Aleppo: The regime has decided to forego Syria’s former commercial powerhouse.
“Residents of areas controlled by the regime really do feel like they have been left to fend for themselves,” Balanche said. “Especially because many thought Assad’s forces would quickly take back the eastern half of Aleppo the way they did in Homs [in May 2014].”
Members of the United Nations Security Council teared up on Thursday when Syrian doctors showed a video of failed attempts to resuscitate three toddlers after a chlorine gas attack in the northwest village of Sarmin in March, prompting renewed calls for accountability.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said it was an "extremely unusual and very emotional meeting." She added: "If there was a dry eye in the room I didn't see it." Several others attending said many people cried.
The children in the video, aged 1, 2 and 3, their parents and grandmother were killed in the March 16 attack, Dr. Mohamed Tennari told the UN diplomats. Government and opposition forces in Syria have denied using chlorine gas in the conflict.
The situation in Aleppo is nevertheless markedly different than in Homs. Aleppo’s proximity to the Turkish border and the strong presence of opposition militants in the surrounding countryside, including the Al-Nusra Front, has made the task of dislodging rebels from the city much more difficult.
“For the past two years the Syrian regime steadily advanced around the city, but now it can advance no further,” explained Balanche. Exhausted from fighting and unable to find new recruits, the Syrian army has suffered a string of defeats and failed to cut off supply routes from Aleppo to Turkey.
However, this does not mean that Damascus has been abandoned by Assad, according to Balanche.
“Aleppo is too important symbolically to let it fall without a fight. If it did, all of northern Syria would be under rebel control, and Iran would find it hard to continue its support for Assad.”