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Fierce Air Strikes On Aleppo After Syrian Army Declares Offensive

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Warplanes bombed Aleppo on Friday with what residents described as unprecedented ferocity after the Russian-backed Syrian army declared an offensive to fully capture Syria‘s biggest city, killing off any hope of reviving a ceasefire.

Video images filmed by residents showed a young girl screaming as rescuers frantically dug her out of rubble, pulling her out alive. Another showed rescuers digging out a toddler with their bare hands, shouting “God is Great” as they lift him from the debris. The boy showed no signs of life as he was rushed off in a rescuer’s arms.

The apparent collapse of U.S.-backed peacemaking may mark a turning point in the five-year civil war, with the government and its Russian and Iranian allies now seemingly determined to crush the rebellion in its biggest urban stronghold.

“Can you hear it? The neighborhood is getting hit right now by missiles. We can hear the planes right now,” Mohammad Abu Rajab, a radiologist, told Reuters. “The planes are not leaving the sky, helicopters, barrel bombs, warplanes.”

The Civil Defense rescue group that operates in opposition areas said at least 70 people had been killed and 40 buildings destroyed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring body gave an initial death toll of 27.

Ammar al Selmo, the head of the Civil Defense, said the rescuers themselves were targeted, with three of their four centers in Aleppo hit.

“What’s happening now is annihilation in every sense of the word,” he told Reuters. “Today the bombardment is more violent, with a larger number of planes.”

The bombing came after the Syrian army announced overnight that it was launching an operation to recapture the rebel-held sector of the city. Western diplomats fear a bloodbath if the government unleashes a full-blown assault to capture the besieged opposition-held zone, where 250,000 civilians are still trapped.

“The only way to take eastern Aleppo is by such a monstrous atrocity that it would resonate for generations. It would be the stuff of history,” one Western diplomat said.

The assault left no doubt that the government of President Bashar al-Assad and its Russian allies had spurned a plea from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to halt flights to resurrect the ceasefire, which collapsed on Monday after a week.

Recovering full control of the rebels’ last significant urban area would be the most important victory of the war so far for Assad, strengthening his control over Syria‘s most populous and strategically important regions.

COMPREHENSIVE OFFENSIVE

In its late night announcement on Thursday, the Syrian military announced “the start of its operations in the eastern districts of Aleppo”. It warned residents to stay away from “the headquarters and positions of the armed terrorist gangs”.

An army source said on Friday that the offensive would be “comprehensive”, with a ground assault following air and artillery bombardment. “With respect to the air or artillery strikes, they may continue for some time,” he said.

Several residents said explosions had struck with far greater force than anything that had hit the city in the past, making bigger craters and bringing entire buildings down.

“I woke up to a powerful earthquake though I was in a place far away from where the missile landed,” said a rebel commander in a voice recording sent to Reuters. His group had “martyrs under the rubble” in three locations.

The offensive coincides with international meetings on Syria in New York, ostensibly intended to revive the truce announced jointly by the United States and Russia on Sept. 9.

But the collapse of that ceasefire – the same fate as all previous efforts to halt a 5-1/2-year-old war that has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians – appears to have already doomed the peace bid, probably the last chance for a settlement during Barack Obama’s presidency.

The Syrian government, strengthened by Russian air power and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, has been tightening its grip on rebel-held districts of Aleppo this year, and this summer achieved a long-held goal of fully encircling the area.

The government already controls the city’s western half, where fewer people have fled. Before the war, the city held nearly 3 million people and was Syria‘s economic hub.

The army made attempts to advance in several districts but was repelled said Zakaria Malahifji, a Turkey-based official for one of the main Aleppo factions. The Observatory said the army had made some progress in a southern district of the city.

On Thursday at the United Nations, the United States and Russia failed to agree on how to revive the ceasefire during what U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura called a “long, painful, difficult and disappointing” meeting.

Western countries pushed in the meeting for warplanes to be grounded everywhere inSyria apart from over areas held by Islamic State, but Russia has refused to accept the demand.

Assad remains defiant, saying on Thursday he expected the conflict to “drag on” as long as it is part of a global conflict in which the groups fighting him are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United States.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Angus McDowall; writing by Tom Perry and Angus McDowall; editing by Peter Graff and Peter Millership)

Photo: Men ride a motorcycle near damaged buildings in the rebel held Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Syria Truce Largely Holds, Aid Preparations Underway

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A nationwide ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia was mostly holding across Syria on Tuesday and efforts to deliver badly needed aid to besieged areas including the northern city of Aleppo got cautiously underway.

Syrian state media said armed groups had violated the truce in a number of locations in Aleppo city and in the west Homs countryside on at least seven occasions on Tuesday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said pro-government forces had shelled near two villages in the south Aleppo countryside and a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus.

But there were no reports of deaths or injuries.

Around 20 trucks carrying aid crossed into northern Syria from the Turkish border town of Cilvegozu, some 40 km (25 miles) west of Aleppo, a Reuters witness said, although with security a concern it was not clear how far into Syria they would go. A Turkish official said they were mostly carrying food and flour.

The Syrian government said it would reject any aid deliveries to Aleppo not coordinated through itself and the United Nations, particularly from Turkey, Syrian state media reported.

The U.N. said its trucks had not yet entered Syria and that it was still awaiting confirmation that the ceasefire was holding before sending in its own convoy.

“We are waiting for this cessation of hostilities to actually deliver the assurances and the peace before trucks can start moving from Turkey. As I speak, that has not been the case,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said in Geneva.

“We need to enter an environment where we are not in mortal danger as humanitarian organizations delivering aid,” he said.

The ceasefire is the second attempt this year by the United States and Russia to halt the Syrian war. Russia is a major backer of President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States supports some of the rebel groups fighting to topple him.

Some air attacks and shelling were reported in the first hours of the truce on Monday evening, but that appeared to die down and the Observatory, which monitors the war, said it had not recorded a single civilian death from fighting in the 15 hours since the ceasefire came into effect at 7 p.m. (1600 GMT).

Turkey said on Monday that, in conjunction with the United Nations, it aimed to send more than 30 trucks loaded with food, children’s clothes and toys to besieged parts of Aleppo within hours of the truce taking effect.

The United Nations said on Friday the Syrian government had effectively stopped aid convoys this month and Aleppo was almost running out of fuel.

The head of the city council for opposition-held Aleppo expressed concern that planned deliveries would be conducted according to Russian wishes and would not meet the needs of an estimated 300,000 people living there.

Brita Hagi Hassan told Reuters the rebel-held part of the city, which has been fully encircled by pro-government forces for more than a week, was in dire need of fuel, flour, wheat, baby milk, and medicines.

The council wanted to a role in overseeing the deliveries, he added, rejecting any presence of government forces on the road expected to be used to make the deliveries.

“We need 60 tonnes of flour each day,” he said.

POSITION OF STRENGTH

More than 301,000 Syrians have been documented as killed since the start of the conflict in 2011, the Observatory said in its latest assessment on Tuesday, although it estimates the actual death toll at around 430,000, in line with the U.N.’s estimate. Some 11 million people have been made homeless in the world’s worst refugee crisis.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was monitoring the ceasefire very closely, a spokeswoman said, but she declined to comment on how it was being observed so far.

Israel said its aircraft attacked a Syrian army position after a stray mortar bomb struck the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, a now-routine Israeli response to the occasional spillover from the war. It denied a Syrian claim that a warplane and drone were shot down.

The truce does not cover the jihadist groups Islamic State or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a group formerly called the Nusra Front which was al Qaeda’s Syria branch until it changed its name in July. It initial aims include allowing humanitarian access and joint U.S.-Russian targeting of such groups.

The agreement comes at a time when Assad’s position on the battlefield is at its strongest since the earliest months of the war, thanks to Russian and Iranian military support.

The RIA news agency quoted Russia’s foreign ministry on Tuesday as saying Moscow and Tehran had no differences over the ceasefire deal.

Hours before the truce took effect, an emboldened Assad vowed to take back all of Syria. In a gesture loaded with symbolism, state television showed him visiting Daraya, a Damascus suburb long held by rebels but recaptured last month after fighters surrendered in the face of a crushing siege.

Fighting had raged on several key fronts before the truce, including Aleppo and the southern province of Quneitra on Monday, the first day of the Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday.

The Observatory said at least 31 were killed by air strikes on rebel-held Idlib province and eastern Damascus, and by the bombardment of villages in the northern Homs countryside and rocket attacks in the city of Aleppo before the truce.

(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, Yesim Dikmen in Istanbul, Tom Perry in Beirut, Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Orhan Coskun in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Photo: Boys walk near a damaged building on the first day of Eid al-Adha celebrations in the rebel held Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Assad Vows To Take Back All Of Syria Hours Before Ceasefire

BEIRUT (Reuters) – An emboldened President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Monday to take back all of Syria, hours before the start of a ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia, which Assad’s opponents described as stacked in his favor.

In a gesture loaded with symbolism, state television showed Assad visiting Daraya, a Damascus suburb long held by rebels but recaptured last month after fighters there surrendered in the face of a crushing siege. The Syrian leader performed Muslim holiday prayers alongside other officials in a bare hall in a Daraya mosque.

“The Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists,” Assad said in an interview broadcast by state media, flanked by his delegation at an otherwise deserted road junction.

He made no mention of the ceasefire agreement, but said the army would continue its work “without hesitation, regardless of any internal or external circumstances”.

The ceasefire is due to take effect at sundown, and includes improved humanitarian aid access and joint U.S. and Russian targeting of hardline Islamists. But it faces big challenges, including how to separate nationalist rebels from the jihadists.

The rebels say the deal benefits Assad, who appears stronger than at any point since the early days of the war, with military support from Russia and Iran.

The capture of Daraya, a few kilometers (miles) from Damascus, followed years of siege and bombardment and has helped the government secure important areas to the southwest of the capital near an air base.

Backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, the army has also completely encircled the rebel-held half of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war, which has been divided into government and opposition-held zones for years.

In the footage of his visit to Daraya, Assad, 51, appeared to be driving his own vehicle, a silver SUV, as he arrived at the mosque. He smiled and waved as he entered.

FIGHTING CONTINUES

Daraya was evacuated following a local agreement between the army and rebels that let fighters escape to a rebel stronghold while civilians were sent to another government-held area. The U.N.’s aid chief, Stephen O’Brien, voiced “extreme concern”, emphasizing the harsh conditions that led to the surrender. The government has sought similar deals in other besieged areas.

Russia’s intervention in the Syrian war a year ago has tilted it in Assad’s favor, after rebel advances had posed a growing threat to his rule. It has also given Russia decisive leverage over international diplomacy that has thus far failed to make any progress towards a political settlement.

The Russia-U.S. deal is the second attempt to bring about a ceasefire this year, after an agreement concluded in February collapsed as each side blamed the other for violations.

Washington, which supports some rebel factions, has been seeking to refocus the fighting in Syria on the Islamic State group, which still controls swathes of the country and has not been included in any ceasefires.

Fighting raged on several key frontlines on Monday, including Aleppo and the southern province of Quneitra.

“There are no signs we are going to a truce so far,” said Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict.

The Syrian war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced 11 million people from their homes in the world’s worst refugee crisis. The new truce has official support from countries on both sides, including both Iran, Assad’s ally, and Turkey, a major sponsor of the insurgency against him.

TRICKY

Under the agreement, Russian-backed government forces and opposition groups, which are supported by the United States and Gulf States, would halt fighting for a while as a confidence building measure.

During this time, opposition fighters will have the chance to separate from militant groups in areas such as Aleppo.

But distinguishing rebels protected by the ceasefire from jihadists who are excluded from it is tricky, particularly with regards to a group formerly called the Nusra Front, which was al Qaeda’s Syria branch until it changed its name in July.

The group, which now calls itself Jabhet Fateh al-Sham, is playing a vital role in the battle for Aleppo allied with other rebel factions, but is still outside the ceasefire.

The United States has said the deal includes agreement that the government will not fly combat missions in an agreed area on the pretext of hunting fighters from the former Nusra Front. However, the opposition says a loophole would allow the government to continue air strikes for up to nine days after the ceasefire takes effect.

Nationalist rebel groups, including factions backed by Assad’s foreign enemies, wrote to Washington on Sunday to express deep concerns over the truce. The letter, seen by Reuters, said the opposition groups would “cooperate positively” with a ceasefire but believed the terms favored Assad.

It said the ceasefire shared the flaw that allowed the government to scupper the previous truce: a lack of guarantees, monitoring mechanisms or sanctions against violators.

It also said Jabhet Fateh al-Sham should be included in the truce, as the group had not carried out attacks outside Syria despite its previous ties to al Qaeda. Jabhet Fatah al-Sham said the deal aimed to weaken the “effective” anti-Assad forces, and to “bury” the revolution.

The government has made no comment on the agreement, but Syrian state media quoted what it called private sources as saying the government had given its approval.

The previous cessation of hostilities agreement resulted in a U.N.-led attempt to launch peace talks in Geneva. But these broke down before getting started in earnest.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said a new round of talks between the Syrian government and opposition may be held in early October, the RIA news agency said.

“I think that probably at the very beginning of October (U.N. Syria envoy Staffan) de Mistura should invite all the parties,” Bogdanov was quoted as saying.

(Additional reporting by Mohamed el Sherif in Cairo and Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Peter Graff)

Photo: Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with NBC News in this handout picture provided by SANA on July 14, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Syrian Officials, Rebels Reach Deal To Restore Electricity To Aleppo

By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

The Syrian government and rebels struck a rare agreement Monday to restore electricity in Aleppo province, cut off by the opposition for more than a week, in exchange for a cessation of airstrikes by the military.

Several rebel groups severed the electricity for the province, demanding that the government cease its bombardment on opposition areas with barrel bombs. The oil drums filled with TNT have ravaged the city of Aleppo and its suburbs for four months and have led to a mass exodus of residents. Activists estimate that more than 2,000 civilians have been killed in the bombings alone.

The deal is scheduled to go into effect Tuesday.

Truces have become common around the capital, Damascus, as the military blockades have led opposition-held areas to agree to lay down arms in exchange for food and medicine. However, rebels in the north have long rejected any calls for cease-fires.

But the months of unrelenting bombardment, which have left some parts of Aleppo almost entirely deserted, led to the ultimatum by the rebels. They had threatened that if the government did not relent, the electricity outages would be extended to Damascus and the coastal province of Latakia, a stronghold for President Bashar Assad.

“The regime recently began dropping the explosive barrels on the civilians in an insane way,” said Yaser Ataee, spokesman for the Sharia Committee in Aleppo, which reached the agreement with the government.

The partial truce, which will have no effect on ongoing clashes between the two sides, comes on the heels of a weekslong offensive by the rebels. The fighting has seen the opposition regain the upper hand against the military in Aleppo, cutting off a strategic reinforcement route and besieging the government-controlled parts of the city, though at least one passage remains open for civilians and humanitarian needs.

State media reported the restoration of power to Aleppo province but gave a differing account. The Ministry of Electricity reported that power lines damaged by terrorist groups had been repaired, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency. The government routinely refers to opposition forces as terrorists.

The development is the latest in the battle for Aleppo, which has seen a switching of fortunes from one side to the other. Government forces had been gradually retaking parts of Aleppo for many months and in March were close to encircling and blockading rebel-held areas.

On Monday, the Sharia Committee, along with several rebel factions including the Islamic Front and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, received a written agreement from the government by way of the Red Crescent, Ataee said.

The agreement includes promises on both sides not to target civilians and not to interfere with utilities such as water and electricity. Ataee said that electricity to several parts of the city was restored on Monday, earlier than expected.

“And if the regime breaks any clause (of the agreement), we will easily do what needs to be done,” he said. “In a few hours we will see the regime’s compliance with this issue, even though we doubt it will comply. But this is necessary to embarrass them diplomatically.”

Photo via AFP