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Battle Rages Near Aleppo As Syria Air Onslaught Continues

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

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

Obama Urges Russia To Stop Bombing ‘Moderate’ Syria Rebels

By Tom Perry and Jeff Mason

BEIRUT/RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama urged Russia on Sunday to stop bombing “moderate” rebels in Syria in support of its ally President Bashar al-Assad, a campaign seen in the West as a major obstacle to latest efforts to end the war.

Major powers agreed on Friday to a limited cessation of hostilities in Syria but the deal does not take effect until the end of this week and was not signed by any warring parties – the Damascus government and numerous rebel factions fighting it.

Russian bombing raids directed at rebel groups are helping the Syrian army to achieve what could be its biggest victory of the war in the battle for Aleppo, the country’s largest city and commercial center before the conflict.

There is little optimism that the deal reached in Munich will do much to end a war that has lasted five years and cost 250,000 lives.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin and Obama had spoken by telephone and agreed to intensify cooperation to implement the Munich agreement.

But a Kremlin statement made clear Russia was committed to its campaign against Islamic State and “other terrorist organizations”, an indication that it would also target groups in western Syria where jihadists such as al Qaeda are fighting Assad in close proximity to rebels deemed moderate by the West.

Russia says the “cessation” does not apply to its air strikes, which have shifted the balance of power toward Assad.

It says Islamic State and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front are the main targets of its air campaign. But Western countries say Russia has in fact been mostly targeting other insurgent groups, including some they support.

The White House said Obama’s discussion with Putin stressed the need to rush humanitarian aid to Syria and contain air strikes.

“In particular, President Obama emphasized the importance now of Russia playing a constructive role by ceasing its air campaign against moderate opposition forces in Syria,” the White House said in a statement.

Aid Threatened

Relief workers said efforts to deliver humanitarian aid were being threatened by the latest escalation of violence.

“We must ask again, why wait a week for this urgently needed cessation of hostilities?” said Dalia al-Awqati, Mercy Corps director of programs for North Syria.

The situation in Syria has been complicated by the involvement of Kurdish-backed combatants in the area north of Aleppo near the Turkish border, which has drawn a swift military response from artillery in Turkey.

The Kurdish YPG militia, helped by Russian air raids, seized an ex-military air base at Menagh last week, angering Turkey, which sees the YPG as an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish group that waged a bloody insurgent campaign on Turkish soil over most of the past three decades.

Turkey began shelling while demanding that the YPG militia withdraw from areas it has captured from Syrian rebels in the northern Aleppo region in recent days, including the Menagh air base. The bombardment killed two YPG fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Syrian Kurdish PYD party rejected Turkish demands for withdrawal, while the Syrian government said Turkish shelling of northern Syria amounted to direct support for insurgent groups.

France called on Turkey to stop the shelling, but Turkey said it would continue to respond to Kurdish militia attacks in Syria.

Syria also said Turkish forces were believed to be among 100 gunmen that entered Syria on Saturday with a dozen pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns in an operation to supply rebel fighters.

Other fronts were also active on Sunday.

Kurdish-backed forces were fighting with insurgent groups near Tel Rifaat in the northern Aleppo countryside, while farther south, government forces renewed their shelling of rebel positions to the northwest of Aleppo city.

The Syria Democratic Forces alliance, which includes the YPG, gained more ground from insurgents north of Aleppo, capturing a village on the road between the two rebel-held towns of Tel Rifaat and Azaz, the Observatory reported.

It also reported air strikes by jets believed to be Russian in areas east of Damascus, north of Homs, and in the southern province of Deraa.

Reaction from politicians in the West to the Munich deal was skeptical.

U.S. Senator John McCain said he did not view the deal as a breakthrough. “Let’s be clear about what this agreement does. It allows Russia’s assault on Aleppo to continue for another week,” he said at security conference in Munich.

“Mr Putin is not interested in being our partner. He wants to shore up the Assad regime,” McCain said.

A senior ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Russia had gained the upper hand in Syria through armed force.

Norbert Roettgen, head of the foreign affairs committee in the German parliament, said Russia was determined to create “facts on the ground”, to bolster its negotiating position.

‘Reconciliation’

As the fighting continued, the Syrian army urged citizens in Deraa province, the Ghouta area east of Damascus, and in rural districts east of Aleppo to quickly seek “reconciliation” with the government.

So-called local reconciliation agreements are often seen as a means for the government to force surrender on insurgents, and have typically followed lengthy blockades of rebel areas and the civilians living there.

Saudi Arabia confirmed it had sent aircraft to Turkey’s Incirlik air base to join the fight against Islamic State, but said any move to deploy Saudi special forces into Syria must await a decision by the U.S.-led coalition combating the militants.

Any ground operations in Syria will lead to “a full-fledged, long war”, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned.

 

(This story has been refiled to add Assad’s title in paragraph 1)

(Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla, Angus McDowall, Orhan Coskun, Katya Golubkova and Vladimir Soldatkin; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Picture: Civil defence members search for survivors after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria February 14, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail