Children's hospital bombed by Assad's forces
US-backed forces got within firing distance of a key Isil stronghold in northern Syria yesterday, as the Assad regime continued to bombard the city of Aleppo.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a largely Kurdish fighting coalition with Western backing, said they had reached the last main road into Isil-held Manbij, in Aleppo province.
The town, dubbed "Little London", is a vital funnel for Isil to transport foreign fighters from Turkey into the group's de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa.
As the multi-sided battle for Aleppo province heats up, forces loyal to Mr Assad have also intensified their bombardment of rebel-held areas in the provincial capital.
Three of Aleppo city's medical facilities were destroyed on Wednesday, including its only remaining children's hospital, forcing the frantic evacuation of nine newborn babies to safety in a basement.
Photographs from the hospital showed infants lying prone on a bed as bombs continued to fall outside.
The Independent Doctors Association (IDA), which funds the facility, said the hospital had relocated on several occasions, fearing aerial attacks.
War planes and helicopters continued to pummel its rebel-held eastern suburbs yesterday, bringing the total number of strikes to over 100 in just 24 hours.
Syria's brutal conflict has killed almost half a million people and seen hospitals destroyed across the country.
Newborn babies had to be taken from their incubators into the basement of the hospital during the bombardment.
Peter Salama, Unicef's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, condemned the latest attacks on Aleppo, saying they should "shake the moral compass of the world".
"Everyone must question their humanity when babies have to be taken out of incubators because of attacks on hospitals," he said. "How long will we allow the children of Syria to suffer like this?"
According to IDA, there are now only 18 incubators in the whole of east Aleppo.
France said it had deployed special forces in northern Syria to advise the operation to retake Manbij, joining a growing contingent of American ground forces.
As pressure mounts on Manbij, Isil fighters have melted away from several nearby villages, allowing rebel fighters to reopen a key supply route between the towns of Marea and Azaz.
Sources in the area said Isil appeared to have pulled a skeleton force back to defend Manbij, while others had retreated west to the town of al-Bab, one of the group's final strongholds in northern Syria. Meanwhile, it has also been reported how increasing numbers of disenchanted Western Isil fighters are appealing to their governments for help to return home, diplomats have reported.
As fighting around Isil's strongholds intensifies and the group loses vast swathes of territory, foreign jihadists are trying to defect in record numbers.
More than 150 from six countries have in the last few months contacted their missions in Turkey, which neighbours the Islamist group's territory in Syria and Iraq,
Western diplomats said they had received hushed phone calls from inside Raqqa - Isil's self-styled capital - and even messages requesting help smuggled out on scraps of paper, according to the 'Wall Street Journal'.
It is thought up to 1,700 French jihadists have returned home from fighting in Syria and Iraq since 2012.
Britain and Germany have seen roughly the same number of 800, which is a major cause for concern for the European intelligence agencies.
"There are a lot of French people who are coming back," France's national intelligence coordinator, Didier le Bret, said at a recent security conference. "They've got a feeling it's not going that well."
Most of the Paris attackers had trained in Syria and managed to return to Europe by posing as refugees.
Until Turkey closed its once-porous border with Syria earlier this year, foreign fighters had been able to move in and out of its territory with relative ease.
Crossing is now much more difficult.