Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.com.
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian government and rebel forces battled for control of high ground on the Aleppo outskirts on Saturday as warplanes bombed the city’s opposition-held east relentlessly in a Russian-backed offensive that has left Washington’s Syria policy in tatters.
In their first major ground advance of the offensive, the army and its militia allies seized control of the Handarat Palestinian refugee camp, a few kilometers north of Aleppo, only for rebels to counterattack a few hours later.
“The fighters are waging ferocious battles because it is a battle of existence,” a senior rebel official told Reuters.
Rebels said they had recovered some or all of Handarat. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the battle was ongoing. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military.
The assault on Aleppo, where more than 250,000 civilians are trapped in a besieged opposition sector, could be the biggest battle yet in a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven 11 million from their homes.
Residents say air strikes on eastern Aleppo since the offensive was announced on Thursday have been more intense than ever, using more powerful bombs. Scores of people have been killed in the last two days.
Two weeks after Moscow and Washington announced a ceasefire, President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies appear to have launched a campaign for a decisive battlefield victory that has buried any hope for diplomacy.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who hammered out the truce over the course of months of intensive diplomacy, was left pleading in vain this week with Russia to halt air strikes.
Rebel officials said air strikes on Saturday hit at least four areas of the opposition-held east, and they believe the strikes are mostly being carried out by Russian warplanes. Video of the blast sites shows huge craters several meters wide and deep.
“There are planes in the sky now,” Ammar al Selmo, the head of the Civil Defence rescue service in the opposition-held east, told Reuters from Aleppo on Saturday morning.
The group draws on ambulance workers and volunteers who dig survivors and the dead out of the rubble, often with their bare hands. It says several of its own centers have been destroyed in the latest bombing. “Our teams are responding but are not enough to cover this amount of catastrophe,” Selmo said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 45 people, among them 10 children, were killed in eastern Aleppo on Saturday. Selmo put the two-day death toll at more than 200.
The army says it is targeting only militants.
The war has ground on for nearly six years, with all diplomatic efforts collapsing in failure. Half of Syria’s population has been made homeless, world powers and regional states have been drawn in, and Islamic State – the enemy of every other party to the conflict – has seized swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq.
For most of that time, world powers seemed to accept that neither Assad nor his opponents were likely to be capable of decisive victory on the battlefield.
But Russia’s apparent decision to abandon the peace process this week could reflect a change in that calculus and a view that victory is in reach, at least in the western cities where the overwhelming majority of Syrians live.
Assad’s fortunes improved a year ago when Russia joined the war on his side. Since then, Washington has worked hard to negotiate peace with Moscow, producing two ceasefires. But both proved short-lived, with Assad, possibly scenting chances for more battlefield success, showing no sign of compromise.
Moscow says Washington failed to live up to its side of the latest deal by separating mainstream insurgents from hardened jihadists.
Outside Aleppo, anti-Assad fighters have been driven mostly into rural areas. Nevertheless, they remain a potent fighting force, which they demonstrated with an advance of their own on Saturday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said rebels, including the jihadist Jund al-Aqsa group, had seized two villages in northern Hama province, an area that is strategically important and close to the coastal heartland of Assad’s Alawite minority sect.
A Syrian military source said the army was “fighting fierce battles” around the two villages, Maan and al-Kabariya.
A rebel commander told Reuters he expected fighters would receive more weapons from sponsoring countries to counter the government’s latest advance, although there was no sign they would obtain advanced arms such as anti-aircraft missiles they have long sought.
“There are indications and promises” of more weapons, though he expected only “a slight increase”, said Colonel Fares al-Bayoush, head of the Northern Division rebel group. He expected more “heavy weapons, such as rocket launchers and artillery”.
Damascus and its allies including Shi’ite militia from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon have encircled rebel-held areas of Aleppo gradually this year, achieving their long-held objective of fully besieging the area this summer with Russian air support.
A pro-government Iraqi militia commander in the Aleppo area told Reuters the aim was to capture all of Aleppo within a week.
A Western diplomat said on Friday the only way for the government to take the area quickly would be to totally destroy it in “such a monstrous atrocity that it would resonate for generations”.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the “chilling military escalation” in Aleppo, his spokesman said on Saturday.
The United Nations Security Council is due to meet at 11 a.m. (1500 GMT) on Sunday to discuss the recent escalation of fighting in Aleppo, diplomats said.
The meeting, which will be public, was requested by the United States, Britain and France.
In a meeting on Saturday in Boston, Kerry and his counterparts from the EU, Britain, Germany, Italy and France called on Russia to “take extraordinary steps to restore the credibility of our efforts, including by halting the indiscriminate bombing by the Syrian regime of its own people, which has continually and egregiously undermined efforts to end this war.”
UNICEF, the U.N. children’s charity, said a pumping station providing water for rebel-held eastern Aleppo was destroyed by bombing, and the rebels had responded by shutting down a station supplying the rest of the city, leaving 2 million people without access to clean water.
Tarik Jasarevic, spokesman for the World Health Organization, said on Saturday the water system was working “in around 80 percent of the city – both sides”.
A Syrian military source told Reuters its operation was continuing according to plan, but declined to give further details. The source said on Friday the operation could go on for some time.
Asked about the weapons being used, the source said the army was using precise weapons “suitable for the nature of the targets being struck, according to the type of fortifications”, such as tunnels and bunkers, and “specifically command centers”.
In New York, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moalem told the U.N. General Assembly the Syrian government’s belief in victory is even greater now that the Syrian army “is making great strides in its war against terrorism”.
The EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Christos Stylianides said the Aleppo situation had “seen a dramatic and rapid deterioration”.
“The human suffering being caused is an affront to the whole world. It risks to take us ever further from a negotiated settlement of the conflict, which remains the only way of bringing it to an end,” they said in a joint statement.
(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis and Laila Bassam and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Michelle Nichols and Yara Bayoumy in New York; Writing by Tom Perry and Peter Graff; Editing by Alison Williams and Matthew Lewis)
IMAGE: A front loader removes debris in a damaged site after airstrikes on the rebel held Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 24, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail
An image of a Syrian boy, bewildered, bloody, and covered in dirt after being pulled from a bombed building in Aleppo has gone viral on social media.
The photo was released along with a video by the Aleppo Media Center, an anti-Assad activist group. In the photo, the Syrian boy is sitting in an ambulance looking horrified and injured. Opposition activists first reported airstrikes in the al-Qaterji neighborhood of Aleppo late Wednesday.
The boy was identified as five-year-old Omran Dagnees by Khaled Khaled, a member of the Syrian Civil Defense, a volunteer rescue group. Dagnees was taken to get help by members of the group, and doctors in Aleppo confirmed he entered the hospital “M10” Wednesday night after the airstrike. Omran had head wounds, but no brain injury, and was released later that night.
Photojournalist Mahmoud Raslan took the video from which still images were captured and recalled helping pull people from the rubble: “We were passing them from one balcony to the other.”
According to several reports, at least eight other people were injured in the strikes, and there were three casualties. The image of Omran, however, is the one that drew the most attention on social media. In the video, Omran is seen being carried away from the rubble and he then touches his face, which is covered in blood. He does not initially cry or otherwise express any emotion, and his face remains flat.
The Syrian civil war has ravaged the country for five years, and fighting has escalated in recent weeks, killing and injuring hundreds, including many children — largely the result of Syrian government “barrel bombs” and Russian airstrikes. Thursday morning, UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura called for a “gesture of humanity from both sides” and urged a 48-hour pause in the fighting to deliver aid.
Photo: A still image taken on August 18, 2016 from a video posted on social media said to be shot in Aleppo on August 17, 2016, shows a boy with bloodied face sitting in an ambulance, after an airstrike, Syria. Social Media
By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Monday that it has finished destroying the lethal chemical agents that were removed from Syria after President Bashar Assad’s forces were accused of using poison gas against civilians a year ago this week.
In a statement, President Barack Obama hailed the joint civilian and military effort, which destroyed more than 600 tons of sarin and mustard agents, as “an important achievement in our ongoing effort to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction.”
“Going forward, we will watch closely to see that Syria fulfills its commitment to destroy its remaining declared chemical weapons production facilities,” Obama said.
After nerve gas killed more than 1,000 people in rebel-held suburbs of east Damascus last Aug. 21, according to U.S. estimates, Assad agreed to surrender his poison gas arsenal and production equipment to international chemical weapons inspectors and thus avoid a threatened retaliatory attack by the U.S. military.
The deal was brokered by Russia, an ally of Assad, to help prevent U.S. airstrikes. But no country agreed to eliminate the dangerous materials on U.S. land. Ultimately, authorities decided to destroy them in international waters.
As Syria’s civil war continued to rage, the warheads were collected at several sites, trucked to a Syrian port and hauled aboard the Cape Ray, a 647-foot U.S. cargo ship. It was outfitted with two specially developed hydrolysis machines that use water or bleach to neutralize the chemicals that produce nerve gases.
Once at sea, the machines eliminate 99.9 percent of the chemical agents, creating a liquid byproduct that is considered hazardous waste but has a low level of toxicity, according to U.S. officials.
“In record time, even amid a civil war, we removed and have now destroyed the most dangerous chemicals in the regime’s declared stockpiles,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement.
The Pentagon said the material destroyed consisted of about 600 tons of methylphosphonyl difluoride, usually called DF, the main precursor of sarin and other nerve agents, and 20 tons of mustard, a blister agent.
The administration said it completed the work several weeks ahead of a schedule established by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Hague-based group that worked with the United Nations to carry out the disarmament.
The operation is one of the few positive developments since the Syrian conflict erupted more than three years ago. The war has left more than 100,000 people dead — some estimates are far higher — and forced millions from their homes.
Kerry indicated that the administration has questions about discrepancies and omissions related to Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons stockpiles and production facilities, as well as reports of systematic use of chlorine gas in opposition-held areas.
“Each and every one of these issues must be fully resolved,” Kerry said.
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