THE battle for control of Syria’s second city, Aleppo, is becoming “one of the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times,” the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, has said. Government forces, backed by Russian air power, are continuing to exchange heavy fire with opposition fighters, as one side, and then the other, appears to have the upper hand.
Rebel forces were able to break the siege of eastern Aleppo, but the Syrian government has drafted in Shia militia reinforcements from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, and air strikes have intensified. For the estimated 700,000 civilians still in the city, living conditions have deteriorated even further.
“No one is safe, nowhere is safe,” Mr Maurer says. “Shellfire is constant, with houses, schools, and hospitals all in the line of fire.” People were living in a state of fear, he said, and children were being traumatised: “The scale of the suffering is intense.”
The Middle East manager of the Order of Malta relief agency Malteser International, Janine Lietmeyer, told Vatican Radio that conditions at the group’s hospital for children were “really, really desperate”. The hospital, in eastern Aleppo, besieged since July, is the only facility that can care for premature babies. Ms Lietmeyer said that the staff had taken the courageous decision to remain in Aleppo, rather than leave. Syrians in the city, she said, had reached the conclusion that they “had been abandoned to their fate by the whole world”.
Russia has said that a daily three-hour truce should allow essential supplies to reach both the eastern and western halves of Aleppo. But the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said: “We need 48 hours in order to make convoys effective.” Talks were continuing this week with Russia and the Humanitarian Taskforce of the International Syria Support Group. Mr de Mistura’s special adviser, Jan Egeland, said that there were “enormous resources ready, and humanitarian workers willing to take the risk to go into these zones, if they get the permission”. It was “heart wrenching” for them to be sitting helpless while the suffering inside Aleppo continued.
Russia and the United States are in contact with most of the warring factions in Syria, with the aim of securing a broad ceasefire. But even if this is achieved, it will not resolve the fate of Aleppo. The stakes are high on both sides. Losing Aleppo would be a devastating setback for the Syrian government and its allies as they seek to restore sovereignty over the whole country. For the rebels, failure to take control of this major city would indicate that their hopes of toppling the Assad regime were fading. Russia, for its part, has staked its reputation on ensuring that the Damascus government keeps Aleppo within its grasp.
Russia has now been given clearance by the Tehran government to use Iranian air-bases for sorties over Syria to target Islamic State (IS) positions. Already under enormous pressure from US air strikes and ground attacks by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — an alliance dominated by Kurds— IS fighters are losing ground. In a significant setback for IS, the SDF has driven the jihadists out of Manbij, a town that controlled supply routes to towns and villages they occupy in the north of the country, close to the Turkish border.
Thousands of Syrians have already returned to their homes in Manbij with mixed emotions. Those who endured the IS occupation described some of the atrocities carried out by the jihadists. One told Reuters how people were beheaded after being accused of not believing in God, or other false pretexts. Another resident of Manbij said she could not believe that the IS fighters had been forced out. “I feel joy,” she said: a sentiment not often expressed in Syria these days.
A video emerged on Thursday of a Syrian boy, covered in ash and blood, being pulled from the rubble by emergency services before being left alone in an ambulance, after an airstrike devastated his home in the rebel-held Qaterji neighbourhood. The images were widespread on social media. But responding to the events on Friday, Christian Aid said that “occasional outrage is not [a] sufficient” response.
The Head of Middle East Region at the aid agency, Frances Guy, said: “We are all shocked at the pictures of young children dragged from rubble but occasional outrage is not sufficient. Where was our outrage every other day that civilians were killed in Aleppo over the last few weeks? What is our government doing to help ensure humanitarian relief reaches any of the besieged areas which the UN promised to reach?”
Christian Aid called for a sustained ceasefire to ensure that food, water and medical aid reaches civilians trapped by violence. It also urged governments to “step up” political and diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.