Saturday 22 October 2016

Massacre beckons, warns UN as Assad goes for a military victory

Humanitarian crisis looming as Syrian regime increase attacks which leaves two million without water

Josie Ensor and Roland Eliphant

Published 25/09/2016 | 02:30

Destruction: Members of the Civil Defence rescue children after what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo. Photo: Sultan KitazY
Destruction: Members of the Civil Defence rescue children after what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo. Photo: Sultan KitazY

A humanitarian catastrophe is looming in Aleppo after two days of relentless Russian and Syrian government airstrikes left two million people without running water, the United Nations has warned.

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Hundreds of thousands of children in both the government-held western and opposition-controlled eastern parts of the city are facing a "catastrophic" outbreak of disease after bombs damaged one pumping station and another was switched off, Unicef said.

"It is critical for children's survival that all parties to the conflict stop attacks on water infrastructure, provide access to assess and repair damage to Bab al-Nayrab station, and switch the water back on at the Suleiman al-Halabi station," said Unicef.

The warning came as Syrian government forces pushed into opposition-held parts of the city under cover of a ferocious Russian and regime aerial bombardment that killed more than 150 people.

At least 60 people were killed by Russian and regime bombing yesterday, with the toll expected to rise. Friday saw 91 people killed in more than 100 air strikes. A large proportion of the victims were women and children.

Residents reported neighbourhoods being hit by so-called bunker-buster bombs so powerful that they levelled buildings to the basement and left deep craters. If confirmed, it would be their first use in the five-year war.

Attacks also appear to have targeted the civil defence volunteers known as the White Helmets, with three of the group's four shelters being hit by strikes on Friday.

The group said it has just two fire engines left for all of east Aleppo which, like its ambulances, are struggling to move around streets strewn with rubble.

Residents of eastern Aleppo enjoyed seven days of relative calm while the ceasefire brokered by John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, came into force on September 12.

The truce quickly unravelled after the US errantly bombed Syria army positions last weekend and Russian aircraft bombed a UN aid convoy on Monday, in what Western diplomats believe was a revenge attack.

Bashar al-Assad's government declared the ceasefire dead on Monday evening and minutes later their warplanes began bombarding Aleppo with a frequency and ferocity that shocked even its most beleaguered residents.

As world leaders in New York tried desperately to revive the ceasefire, the Syrian military announced a fresh offensive to retake the city, making clear it had no intention of complying with any further ceasefire requests from the international community.

The Syrian army yesterday captured the Handarat Camp, on high ground overlooking northern Aleppo, following heavy fighting.

The capture of the strategic hill, which has for years been under rebel control, is the first significant move in an all-out offensive launched by Russian-backed Syrian forces to retake the city since a ceasefire collapsed last week. The move has raised fears of a massacre if the government unleashes a full-blown assault to capture the besieged opposition-held eastern side of the city, 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," one diplomat said speaking on condition of anonymity. "It would be the stuff of history."

Talks between Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov stalled on Friday, with both sides accusing the other of intransigence. Mr Kerry and other western diplomats have called for a suspension of all military flights over Syria in an effort to restore the truce. Russia has said such an arrangement "will not work" because it would require unilateral action from the Syrian government.

Mr Lavrov said on Friday that a new ceasefire would depend on the US pressuring opposition groups to separate from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the al-Qaeda linked group formerly know as Al Nusra.

The bombing of the convoy and the subsequent operation in eastern Aleppo were "clarifying" moments for the Americans, a Western diplomat closely involved with the talks told The Sunday Telegraph. "It forced a hard analysis of whether Russia intended to, or could, deliver enough to deserve the partnership with the US," he said. The Sunday Telegraph understands some American officials believed they had offered Russia an attractive chance to shed its pariah status by agreeing to work together with its former Cold War foe to target Islamist rebels and share intelligence from a joint control centre.

While the deal has been billed as a "last chance," America has little other leverage should the Russians walk away from it.

"This was our Plan A and we had faith in the plan. We don't have a Plan B,"

one US official said bluntly.

Some believe Moscow was never serious about reaching a deal to end the conflict, not least because it has the advantage. Russia's support of Assad last year helped shift the balance of power in the president's favour, giving it the whip hand in negotiations. With the military backing of Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Hizbollah militia, Assad has never looked stronger.

"The ceasefire was never going to last and the Syrian regime was always preparing for an operation to take rebel-held east Aleppo, and the Russians were supportive," said Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East. The assault on Aleppo could be a turning point in the war, with Syria and Russia appearing more determined than ever to end the six-year rebellion by force.

Capturing Aleppo would be a major victory for the government and a potentially knock-out blow for the opposition.

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