Russia escalates offensive in Aleppo, scores killed
BEIRUT - The Syrian regime and its allies are stepping up their indiscriminate round-the-clock bombardment of rebel-held eastern Aleppo to crush opposition forces, exploiting the political uncertainty in Washington as the outgoing administration stands back while President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take over in January.
US intelligence officials expect Russia, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s main ally, to expand its punishing air offensive and missile strikes from a naval task force in the Mediterranean on the battered northern city over the next two months.
At the same time, Iran has been building up its army of Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These are the regime’s cutting edge on the ground in what could be the defining battle of the five-and-a-half-year-old war.
Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the Badr Organisation, one of the main Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, said Damascus has invited the Popular Mobilisation Forces to fight in Syria once the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq is won.
The escalation in the Aleppo offensive, which has been months in the planning, coincides with Russian attempts to dominate the fragile peace effort and cut out the United States from the process before Trump enters the White House.
The Kremlin, with Iran’s agreement, is seeking to organise a meeting in Damascus with opposition representatives that it hopes will supersede floundering United Nations-mandated efforts centred on Geneva.
The signs are that the long-running battle for Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and its economic heart, is now in its final phase.
That began on November 15th with a pulverising air and artillery bombardment by pro-Assad forces on the eastern sector, held by rebels since mid-2012.
“The Syrian army and its allies are in a sustained offensive to recapture…eastern Aleppo,” said Robert Ford, the last US ambassador in Syria and now a vocal critic of the US failure to intervene during the war’s early stages.
“Unless the balance of the ground forces drastically shifts, the Assad regime will eventually retake from the opposition all of eastern Aleppo and the outlying districts of Damascus,” he said. “This may take months, but the balance is certainly in the Syrian government’s favour.”
The intensity of the Russian bombardment can be gauged from reports by Mediterranean shipping sources that, for the first time, Russian-flagged tankers have been smuggling jet fuel to Syria, violating European Union sanctions on such activity.
This began in October, indicating the Russians had planned to intensify the bombardment of eastern Aleppo well in advance.
An estimated 250,000 civilians are trapped in eastern Aleppo, with food and fuel supplies steadily dwindling.
The regime’s ground forces seem to be gaining after days of ferocious bombardment in which 143 civilians have been killed, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.