Syrian authorities have accused rebel fighters of executing 21 civilians, including women and children, at close range as they quit second city Aleppo last week, state media reported.
The bodies were found in two neighborhoods in east Aleppo, state news agency SANA said late Sunday. The head of Aleppo’s forensic unit Zaher Hajjo told SANA that “21 corpses of civilian victims, including five children and four women, killed by terrorist groups” were examined. “The bodies were found in prisons run by the terrorist groups in Sukkari and al-Kalasseh, and they were found to have been executed by gunshot at very close range,” Hajjo was quoted as saying.
Under a landmark deal brokered by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey, 35,000 rebels and civilians left the former opposition stronghold of east Aleppo last week. Days before the evacuations began, the UN said it had received credible reports of at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, being executed by pro-government forces in Aleppo. On Monday, the Russian defence ministry said “dozens of Syrians” were summarily executed in east Aleppo by rebels. “Mass graves containing dozens of Syrians who were summarily executed and subjected to savage torture have been discovered,” spokesman Igor Konachenkov said, according to Russian agencies. He said most had been killed by gunshot wounds to the head and many bodies “were not whole,” and that thorough investigations would force opposition backers in the West to “recognise their responsibility for the cruelty” of rebels.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that bodies had been found in east Aleppo’s streets, but could not specify how they had been killed.
Syrian rebel leaders are in secret talks with Russia to end the fighting in Aleppo, according to opposition figures, the Financial Times is reporting on Thursday.
Four opposition members from rebel-held northern Syria told the Financial Times that Turkey has been brokering talks in Ankara with Moscow, whose military intervention last year on the side of President Bashar al-Assad helped turn the five-year civil war in Syrian government’s favor. The talks, they say, have focused on negotiating a deal to end the conflict in Aleppo, the country’s besieged second city.
For Washington, any such negotiations have ramifications far beyond Syria. “The American approach to this conflict guaranteed the US less and less relevance not just in the Syrian conflict but also the broader regional dynamics. There has been a loss of face and a loss of leverage,” said Emile Hokayem, fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The politics of the region are being transformed and this happened under [President Barack] Obama, whether by design or by failure.” Mr Hokayem has criticized what he views as Mr Obama’s half-in, half-out strategy in the Syrian conflict, saying it eroded US regional influence, citing several cases of regional leaders turning toward Russia. Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, who holds an eastern portion of the war-torn country, recently went to Moscow seeking military support. Turkey, having resolved its dispute with Moscow over the downing of a Russian jet, is believed to have reached an understanding with Russia that allows Ankara to deploy its forces in parts of northern Syria. Egypt and several Gulf countries have also increased communications with Russia, Mr Hokayem said.
Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the first meeting between Russia, Turkey and the rebels took place on Monday in Ankara and another meeting was likely on Saturday. “Russia is hedging its bets. It would prefer to make a deal with the opposition,” he said. “If Aleppo were to fall, the Syrian regime would need so many troops to hold the city that its forces would be left thin elsewhere in the country — or dependent on Iranian help, which Moscow would prefer to avoid.” However, he said it would be difficult for the opposition to meet Russian demands about removing their heavy weapons from the city, or disentangling themselves on the front lines from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a group linked to al-Qaeda with whom they often fight alongside against Assad.
Talks appear to have made little progress, but the fact they are taking place — without US involvement — underlines the shifting political dynamics in the Middle East. Regional actors now seem more willing to bypass Washington to seek out pacts with Russia, which is keen to develop the image of a rising power that can help broker such deals. Ali Sheikh Omar, an Aleppo council leader, said politicians in rebel-held eastern districts have agreed a team they want to join negotiations with Russia over ending the fierce aerial assault that has flattened the city. Regime forces have made a significant breakthrough in the past week, captured more than a third of the rebel’s territory in the city. “Negotiations are being done directly with the Russians because we all know at this point that Bashar al-Assad is nothing more than a provincial governor carrying out the orders of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” he said.
One rebel leaders denied such negotiations, while others declined to comment saying the issue was too sensitive. A western regional diplomat said he had no confirmation but had been seeking information about potential talks. He also had reports of a Russian military flight from the Syrian port city of Latakia, the site of one of Moscow’s military bases, to Ankara on November 24. None of those who spoke about the negotiations would clarify if the rebels met the Russians face-to-face or indirectly, with Turkish officials mediating.
Asked about the talks, Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said: “Washington isolated itself. We’ve been negotiating with the [Syrian] opposition in Turkey for years — it’s not news.” A Turkish official did not respond to a request for comment.
Tensions also remain high between Ankara and Moscow, especially after Turkey accused regime officials of striking their forces in Syria. Rebels say Ankara believes Assad forces received a green light from Moscow, which shows how fragile relations still are, the Financial Times reports.
The Syrian army captured the Dahiyet al-Assad district of western Aleppo on Saturday after a 48 hour long battle with the jihadist rebels of Jaysh al-Fateh (Army of Conquest), reversing all the gains made by rebels two weeks into their counter-attack against government-held areas. State television said the army swept the suburban area for landmines after regaining full control.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army and its allies made several advances on the divided city’s western edge this week, hampering the rebel offensive to break the siege on opposition-held districts. Syrian government forces took Minyan village and nearby positions, which were captured by rebels last month, the Observatory said.
Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of the Fastaqim rebel group fighting in Aleppo, confirmed the army’s advances. “Of course, when the regime takes control, it has a negative effect, but there is persistence” among the factions, he said. “And hopefully there will be change in the coming days.”
Syrian government forces launched a major Russian-backed assault on eastern Aleppo in September after besieging the area, which the United Nations says is home to 275,000 people.
On Oct. 28, rebels counter-attacked in a bid to break the siege, targeting western districts of Aleppo in an offensive that included Islamist militants and rebels fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner. But their progress slowed after early advances.
Quoting a Syrian military source, state news agency SANA said the army and its allies were steadily advancing on the western outskirts. This week the army also captured the 1070 Apartments district and nearby hills in southwest Aleppo, a focal point of fighting for months and important because of its position alongside a corridor used by the government into the western zone.
Russia says its air force has been observing a moratorium on air strikes on rebel-held eastern Aleppo since Oct. 18. The Observatory and emergency workers in eastern Aleppo said heavy air strikes had killed at least 450 people, and hit hospitals and other civilian facilities prior to that.
Rebel shelling of government-held western Aleppo has meanwhile killed 92 people, including 29 children, during the two-week offensive, the Observatory reported.
With both the Dahiyet al-Assad and Minyan neighborhoods under their control, the Syrian Arab Army’s ‘Tiger Forces’ turned their attention to the Aqrab area of west Aleppo, which is the last site needed to reverse all of the rebels’ gains since September.
President Vladimir Putin has ordered a humanitarian pause in Aleppo from 9am to 7pm on November 4, the Russian General Staff has reported, while urging the armed groups to stop fighting in Aleppo and leave the city with their arms via two corridors.
General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, said the militants failed to break through the blockade around the city last week and accept Russia’s proposal to leave eastern Aleppo through two specially designated corridors, while reiterating that they would be allowed to keep arms.
“Considering that our American colleagues were unable to separate the opposition from terrorists, we are addressing all militant leaders directly, urging them to cease hostilities and leave Aleppo with their arms. Two corridors will be opened, from which Syrian troops and weapons would be pulled back.”
One of the corridors for the militants leads to the Turkish-Syrian border and another one to Idlib, the general said.
During Friday’s pause, six additional corridors will be opened for civilians wishing to leave the city, the general said. A previous attempt to evacuate residents from the besieged city in order to minimize civilian casualties was derailed by militants who shelled the corridor to prevent them from leaving. A UN-led attempt to provide medical evacuations also failed.
The Russian military say they are attempting the same scheme again in light of the serious losses suffered by the militants during an attempt to break out last week. Moscow says by taking up the offer, the rebels could avoid needless deaths.
“All attempts by the militants by break through the blockade of Aleppo failed. The terrorists sustained serious loss of manpower, arms and vehicles. They no longer have any chance to break out of the city,” Gerasimov said.
Syrian rebels including jihadists counter-attacked the Syrian army and its allies on Friday aiming to break a weeks-long siege on eastern Aleppo, insurgents said.
The assault, employing heavy shelling and suicide car bombs, was mainly focused on the city’s western edge by rebels based in the countryside outside Aleppo. It included Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a former affiliate of al Qaeda previously known as the Nusra Front, and groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner.
The offensive prompted the Russian Defence Ministry to ask President Vladimir Putin for permission to resume air strikes against militants in rebel-held eastern Aleppo after 10 days in which the army said it had not struck, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported. But Putin said it was unnecessary to resume strikes yet, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 15 civilians had been killed and 100 wounded by rebel shelling of government-held western Aleppo. State media reported that seven civilians were killed.
There were conflicting accounts of advances in areas on the city’s outskirts. Photographs showed insurgents approaching Aleppo in tanks, armored vehicles, bulldozers, make-shift mine sweepers, pick-up trucks and on motorcycles, and showed a large column of smoke rising in the distance after an explosion.
Fateh al-Sham said in a statement that rebels had gained control over Dahiyet al-Assad, a suburb with a low-rise residential district of about a square kilometer on the southwest corner of the city.
Zakaria Malahifji, an official with Fastaqim, a nationalist rebel group in the offensive, said insurgents had captured the residential area but not the whole of Dahiyet al-Assad. The Observatory said rebels had gained most of the suburb.
But a Syrian military source said earlier that the army and its allies had thwarted what he called “an extensive attack” on south and west Aleppo. A state television station reported that the army had destroyed four car bombs.
Abu Anas al-Shami, a member of the Fateh al-Sham media office, told Reuters from Syria the group had carried out two “martyrdom operations”, after which its fighters had gone in and had been able to “liberate a number of important areas”. A third such attack had been carried out by another Islamist group.
A senior official in the Levant Front, an FSA group, said: “There is a general call-up for anyone who can bear arms.” “The preparatory shelling started this morning,” he added.
Heavy rebel bombardment, with more than 150 rockets and shells, struck southwestern districts, the Observatory said.
Fateh al-Sham played a big part in a rebel attack in July that managed to break the government siege on eastern Aleppo for several weeks before it was reimposed. Abu Youssef al-Mouhajir, an official from the powerful Ahrar al-Sham Islamist group, said the extent of cooperation between the different rebel factions was unusual, and that the largest axis of attack was on the western edge of the city. “This long axis disperses the enemy and it provides us with good cover in the sense that the enemy’s attacks are not focused,” he said.
The powerful role played by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, listed by many countries as a terrorist group, has complicated Western policy toward supporting the anti-Assad opposition. The United States has prevented more powerful weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles from being supplied to rebels partly out of fear they could end up in jihadist hands.
The Syrian military source said Friday’s attack had been launched in coordination with Daesh. Daesh jihadists did clash with the Syrian army on Friday at a government-held airbase 37km (23 miles) east of Aleppo, next to territory the jihadist group already controls, the Observatory reported.
Mouhajir, the Ahrar al-Sham official, said cloudy weather was helping to reduce the aerial advantage enjoyed by the Syrian military and its Russian allies. Inside Aleppo, tyres were also burnt to create a smokescreen against air strikes.
Grad rockets were launched at Aleppo’s Nairab air base before the assault began said Malahifji of the Fastaqim rebel group, adding that it was going to be “a big battle”. The Observatory also said that Grad surface-to-surface rockets had struck locations around the Hmeimim air base, near Latakia.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced concern to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday about renewed fighting and air strikes in the Syrian city of Aleppo after a break of several days, the State Department said.
Lavrov and Kerry discussed the situation in Syria in a phone call and agreed that experts from several countries meeting in Geneva would continue searching for ways to resolve the Aleppo crisis, the State Department and Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
Lavrov told Kerry the United States must fulfil its obligation to separate moderate opposition groups from “terrorists” in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The geographic proximity between moderate Syrian rebels and groups considered terrorist by Russia and the United States was one factor in the failure last month of a ceasefire negotiated by Moscow and Washington.
“They talked about the importance of the continued multilateral discussions in Geneva and how … to get a meaningful cessation of hostilities and the delivery of humanitarian aid,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said of Kerry and Lavrov. During the call, Kerry expressed concern about the renewal of air strikes and ground attacks in Aleppo by Syrian government forces and their Russian supporters after a pause in the fighting for several days, Kirby said. He noted that humanitarian aid had still not made it through to people under siege in Aleppo, despite the pause in fighting.
Asked whether the multilateral talks on Syria in Geneva had made progress, Kirby said only that the dialogue was “ongoing” and he had nothing further to report.
SAA and Hezbollah capture Bazo hill in SW Aleppo
Syrian government forces and their allies on Monday captured strategic high ground in embattled Aleppo as Russia — a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad — said it was not planning more “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting in the city’s eastern, rebel-held districts.
Fighting resumed in Aleppo over the weekend, following a days-long lull announced by Moscow that was meant to allow rebels and civilians to leave the eastern districts. The rebels rejected the Russian offer and none of the civilians left.
Government troops launched a fresh offensive and on Monday took the hilltop of Bazo on the southern edge of Aleppo, near military bases, and shelled the rebel neighborhoods, according to opposition activists. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Bazo was taken amid heavy bombardment. Both the Observatory and the Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective, reported government shelling in eastern parts of the city.
A video released by the Syrian army showed tanks and cannons pounding rebel positions in the area. The state SANA news agency, meanwhile, said the rebels shelled government-held neighborhoods in western Aleppo, killing one person and wounding seven.
The rebels announce major assault to break Aleppo siege
A pro-opposition media outlet circulated footage of a powerful and hard-line Islamist rebel coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah announcing that the campaign to break the government’s siege of the city’s east would begin “within hours.”
Syrian troops have besieged rebel-held parts of Aleppo for weeks, subjecting the districts to some of the worst air raids since a cease-fire brokered by the United States and Russia collapsed on Sept. 19. Opposition activists say more than 600 people have been killed in Aleppo and neighboring villages since then.
Jaish al-Fatah commander Ali Abu Odai al-Aloush told the Qasioun News Agency that “zero hour has drawn near,” and that his militants had begun moving toward Aleppo. It was unclear when the interview was recorded.
A spokesman for the Nour el-Din al-Zinki rebel faction in Aleppo said an operation to break the government’s siege of the rebel-held eastern districts of Aleppo was “coming.” The spokesman, Yasser al-Yousef, said the rebels would not intentionally target civilians in Aleppo’s government-held districts, but warned of collateral damage from the anticipated operations.
Rebels shell West Aleppo, 3 people killed
Three people have been killed, including a seven-year-old girl, and 28 more injured after militants shelled residential areas of government-held West Aleppo on Sunday, according to Russia Today reporter Murad Gazdiev. The attacks, which targeted West Aleppo’s Hamdaniya district and Salah-Eddin neighborhood, lasted for hours, Gazdiev said, citing his sources on the ground.
The Syrian military said on Thursday a unilateral ceasefire had come into force to allow rebels to leave the besieged eastern part of Aleppo city. The rebels said was the ceasefire was part of a psychological campaign to make them surrender.
State media earlier said the army had opened exit corridors in two designated areas in the Bustan al Qasr quarter and near the Castello road in northern Aleppo where waiting green buses were shown on state television.
Intensified Russian and Syrian bombing of besieged rebel-held parts of Aleppo have knocked down scores of hospitals, bakeries and water pumping stations in an offensive that has killed hundreds of civilians in the past few weeks.
Merkel and Hollande do not rule out sanctions on Russia over Aleppo ‘war crimes’
On Wednesday night, the leaders of France and Germany lashed out at President Vladimir Putin over Moscow’s bombardment of Aleppo and refused to rule out imposing sanctions on Russia. “What is happening in Aleppo is a war crime. One of the first demands is that the bombardments by the regime and its [Russian] backers must end,” French president François Hollande said after a meeting of the three leaders in Berlin. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, condemned the air raids on Syria’s second city as “inhumane and cruel”.
Both leaders warned that they could not exclude imposing sanctions on Russia, hours ahead of an EU summit where Russia’s role in Syria is set to be discussed. “Everything that can constitute a threat can be useful,” Hollande said at a press conference. Merkel added: “We cannot remove this option.”
Hollande said Putin appeared to be ready to extend Thursday’s temporary truce, set to last for 11 hours. “We came out of the meeting with the impression that there could be an extension of the truce, but it’s up to the Syrian regime and Russia to show it,” he said. A truce of just a few hours would not be enough to deliver the necessary humanitarian aid and allow civilians to leave the area, Hollande added.
Earlier this week, the Syrian military said the temporary ceasefire would allow trapped civilians to escape and said it had pulled back to enable rebel fighters to leave the city via two designated corridors. “We guarantee a safe exit, save your families,” an army loudspeaker blared near an exit corridor shown live on the pro-Hezbollah news channel Mayadeen. But rebels say the goal of Moscow and President Bashar al-Assad’s government is to empty rebel-held parts of civilians so they can take over the whole city. The rebels say they are preparing a large-scale offensive to break the siege of Aleppo and say the Russian air force has failed, despite a relentless bombing campaign. They say the army and its Iranian-backed militias are finding it harder to make headway after initial progress on the outskirts of the city that allowed the army to tighten its grip.