The Syrian regime intensified air strikes on Aleppo and the surrounding area on Wednesday as a Russian-backed offensive to recapture the last urban rebel stronghold escalated.
Opposition activists said more than 20 people have been killed and four hospitals hit since Moscow announced on Tuesday that it was launching a new bombing campaign across Syria, with rebel areas in the provinces of Idlib and Homs also pummelled.
Many regional analysts believe Damascus and Moscow are seeking to exploit a political vacuum in the wake of Donald Trump’s US election victory to make a final push to drive rebels from their strongholds.
If Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime can recapture Aleppo – the key prize of the five-year civil war – it could crush the rebels and set the terms of any political settlement. The northern city has been divided since 2012, with government forces in the west and anti-Assad rebels holding the east.
‘A done deal’
“I think Aleppo is a done deal if they hold the siege. It could take four to five months, but not years,” said a regional diplomat close to
. “The Russians don’t care so much [about timing] , but the Syrians would like to get this done as soon as possible. They don’t have the time or the troops to keep holding out. And we still don’t know what Donald [Trump] will do.”
In an interview released on Syria’s state television on Tuesday night, Mr Assad said he hoped for improved relations with Washington, but was waiting to see whether other parts of the US administration pressured Mr Trump to change his stance.
“That is why we are very cautiously judging him,” Mr Assad said. “But let’s say that if he is going to fight the terrorists, of course we are going to be an ally, a natural ally with the Russians, with the Iranians.”
Mr Trump’s foreign policy positions are ambiguous but he has suggested he might cut US support to rebel groups, and that he sees Mr Assad or Russia as potential partners to fight Islamic State, also known as Isis, which holds territory in Syria and Iraq. The Obama administration has been leading an international campaign against the jihadi group, but has eschewed an alliance with Mr Assad, who Washington says should step down.
Russia announced it was launching the new offensive hours after Mr Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin discussed the Syrian conflict in a telephone call. But Russian analysts said the resumption of Moscow’s air strikes was not related to Mr Trump’s victory, adding that the
”, a Russian aircraft carrier involved in the offensive, was deployed to the Mediterranean long before the US election.
“It is pretty simple: With terrorists in eastern Aleppo showing no appetite to give up, you cannot continue this forever. You have to complete things somehow,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the council on foreign and defence Policy in Moscow.
However, he added that Moscow considered the question of Mr Assad stepping down to be off the table following Mr Trump’s election.
“I don’t think anyone believes Syria can be recovered the way it was. So now the most likely goal is to recover the most densely populated [rebel-held] areas and create a zone of control for the Assad regime and keep it,” Mr Lukyanov said.
Analysts close to the Syrian regime say it was not just the US vacuum driving their offensive – they also sense increasing disarray among opposition forces in Aleppo, where several cases of infighting have emerged.
The bombing campaign of Syria and Russia across a swath of opposition areas also indicates an attempt to block reinforcements and supplies.
Younes Audi, a Lebanese security analyst in close communication with regime officials, said the bombing was targeting rebel command centres and weapons factories. “They are also trying to sever their communication lines. They don’t want to completely destroy Aleppo,” he said. “The plan is to force the rebels to surrender.”
For 275,000 Syrians trapped in Aleppo’s rebel-held districts, there is nowhere to go – the city has been besieged by regime forces for more than two months.
Civilians inside are struggling to withstand the new onslaught. A doctor at the children’s hospital in Aleppo said he and fellow medics crowded into a basement with their patients as war planes battered the neighbourhood above ground.
Only five medical facilities are still operating in Aleppo’s besieged districts.
Locals have taken to selling furniture and appliances so they can buy the remaining food items in the market, said Abdu Khudr, a member of one of the opposition’s neighbourhood councils. Those with no money have begun bartering.
Video footage from Tuesday showed crowds of protesters outside a food storage area controlled by opposition leaders in Aleppo. Mr Khudr said local frustrations and desperation is making it hard to distribute dwindling bread supplies as well.
“We are all down to one meal a day,” he said. “And we are running out of almost every medicine other than painkillers. Those who have cancer, diabetes, or asthma - there is nothing for them.”
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016