Russia intensifies air strikes one year after Syria intervention
BEIRUT - Russia has begun the second year of its armed intervention in the Syrian war with the heaviest air assault of the conflict, targeting rebel-held eastern Aleppo, now the strategic core of the conflict. The attacks had all the appearances of a make-or-break, scorched-earth offensive by Moscow and the Damascus regime. One resident described the onslaught as “hell itself”.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said an estimated 1,000 people, most of them civilians, were killed in about 1,700 air strikes over an eight-day period. Russian aircraft have been accused of using high-explosive, bunker-buster bombs designed to knock out heavily fortified underground military installations.
Western powers have branded this a war crime. Moscow has not admitted using bunker bombs or incendiaries in the blitz but the United States accused it of doing so and the descriptions provided by activists in the war zone since September 23rd strongly indicate that these weapons are being dropped.
Branding the around-the-clock air strikes as “soul-shattering”, Power declared: “We’re at a turning point.” French analyst Fabrice Balanche of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed: “It’s total war because Moscow doesn’t believe that [the United States] is capable of doing anything.”
Syrian President Bashar Assad unleashed an all-out ground offensive, backed by heavy artillery bombardment, on September 27th aimed at recapturing rebel-held eastern Aleppo, the last major urban centre held by non-jihadist forces.
About 250,000 people, including more than 100,000 children, are trapped in eastern Aleppo, with dwindling supplies of water and food. UN officials said the two main hospitals were closed after being hit in pre-dawn air and artillery strikes on September 28th. The World Health Organisation reported there are only 35 doctors left in eastern Aleppo.
“Aleppo is to Syria what Sarajevo was to Bosnia or what Guernica was to the Spanish war,” French Ambassador to the United Nations François Delattre declared during a fiery UN Security Council session on September 25th in which Russia was denounced for “barbarism”.
The Russian intervention of September 30th, 2015, saved Assad’s regime from imminent defeat but, a year later, after tortuous diplomatic efforts by the United States and Russia nosedived on September 19th with the collapse of a ceasefire, Moscow and Assad have sharply escalated a war already notorious for its indiscriminate savagery.
Amid a global outcry over the systematic obliteration of much of Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city, US Secretary of State John Kerry threatened on September 28th to halt diplomacy with Russia if the bombing continued.
US officials said Washington is considering harsh responses, including military options held in abeyance by US President Barack Obama’s reluctance to get dragged into the complex, multisided Syrian conflict.
US sources admitted these would fall well short of a major military deployment. Nonetheless, this was the toughest US warning to Moscow since the ceasefire collapsed.
Russia has dismissed the US threat. The Syria war has forced the West to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin and he has little incentive to abandon his military intervention.