Western powers on Saturday urged the Syrian regime and Russia to let civilians leave east Aleppo as air strikes targeted the last remaining rebels there, with US Secretary of State John Kerry saying the “indiscriminate” bombing amounts to war crimes.
Saturday saw a new round of diplomacy on Syria as foreign ministers from the Western and Arab backers of Syria’s opposition discussed Aleppo’s plight in Paris while US and Russian officials convened on the same issue in Geneva.
Kerry said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s “indiscriminate bombing” of Aleppo amounted to war crimes and called on his Russian backers to intervene.
“The indiscriminate bombing by the regime violates rules of law or, in many cases, crimes against humanity and war crimes,” Kerry told reporters after the meeting in Paris. He called for Russian authorities to “do their utmost to bring it to a close”.
“Russia and Assad have a moment where they are in a dominant position to show a little grace,” Kerry said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that although no agreement had been reached at the Paris meeting, the Syrian opposition did announce that it was willing to resume the talks without conditions.
Assault on Aleppo
Once the beating heart of Syria’s industrial and commercial industries, Aleppo has witnessed some of the most brutal violence of the country’s nearly six-year-old war.
The city’s east – a rebel stronghold since 2012 – has been the target of a major assault by forces loyal to Assad’s regime.
In less than a month, government troops and allied militia have overrun around 85 percent of east Aleppo, trapping rebels in just a few neighbourhoods.
Air strikes and regime rocket fire battered the last remaining rebel districts early Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Opposition groups fired back with rockets, according to the British-based monitor, which did not have immediate details on casualties in the exchange of fire.
An AFP correspondent in west Aleppo could hear the hum of airplanes circling above, coupled with bombardment and machine gunfire on the city’s east.
The strikes were so intense that windows in the west rattled and plumes of smoke could be seen rising from several points across the city’s skyline.
‘Bombing is unreal’
“The bombing is unreal,” said Ibrahim Abu al-Leith, spokesman for the White Helmets rescue force inside Aleppo.
Abu al-Leith spoke to AFP from one of the last rebel-controlled zones in Aleppo’s southeast, saying he had been forced to move homes because of the intensity of the raids.
“The streets are full of people under the rubble. They are dying because we can’t get them out,” he added.
On Friday a barrage of rebel rockets on regime-held neighbourhoods in Aleppo killed 15 civilians, including four children, according to the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground.
Two shells landed in rebel-held Kalasseh, with both the Observatory and witnesses telling AFP on Friday of cases of suffocation and head pains due to fumes from the attack.
The opposition has accused the regime of using chlorine gas on rebel zones, which Damascus denies.
With the fighting intensifying after a brief respite, the UN General Assembly demanded an immediate ceasefire and urgent aid deliveries, in a resolution adopted by a strong majority.
But both Moscow and Damascus have rejected talk of a ceasefire without a rebel withdrawal from the city – a demand that opposition groups have refused.
Repeated talks between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week have failed to halt the violence, although Lavrov said Friday he hoped a truce deal could be reached soon.
Kerry was not upbeat about the chances of success ahead of the meetings in Paris and Geneva on Saturday.
“I know people are tired of these meetings – I’m tired of these meetings,” Kerry said.
“But what am I supposed to do? Go home and have a nice weekend … while people are dying? Sit there in Washington and do nothing?”
New US troops
At least 409 civilians including 45 children have been killed in the government’s offensive on east Aleppo launched on November 15, according to the Observatory.
Another 113 people, including 35 children, have been killed by rebel fire on government-controlled west Aleppo in the same period.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled east Aleppo in recent weeks, although the UN said Friday it had received reports of rebels blocking some from leaving and of reprisals against residents who asked armed groups to leave.
It also expressed concern about reports that hundreds of men had gone missing after fleeing to government-held territory.
The fall of east Aleppo would be the biggest blow for the rebels since Syria’s conflict broke out in early 2011.
It began as a widespread protest movement against Assad’s regime but has since evolved into an all-out war that has seen jihadists like the Islamic State group rise to prominence.
On Saturday, Washington said it would send another 200 US troops to Syria to help an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters seize IS’s bastion of Raqa.
The fresh dispatch, announced by Defence Secretary Ashton Carter in Bahrain, will complement 300 American special forces already in Syria.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)