ISTANBUL — Moving in for the kill, the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian backers have taken control of the last supply route into rebel-held Aleppo in a combined air and ground campaign that has left well over 100 dead.
It was a major setback for the Syrian opposition, which has tenaciously held the eastern districts of Syria’s most populous city in the face of a far better armed government. Defeat in Aleppo would devastate the five-year-old rebellion, but it is not clear how they can lift the siege in the absence of foreign help.
Even before the latest government offensive, which commenced Thursday, the burned-out hulks of cars, buses and trucks littered the Castello Road, destroyed by artillery, shells and airstrikes over the past two months.
As many as 20 more vehicles were hit in fierce fighting Saturday and Sunday. From their position on a hill just 400 meters from the road, regime forces are now poised to strike anything that moves, putting the road out of commission, local authorities said.
At least 76 people were killed by Russian and Syrian aircraft attacks on Aleppo and nearby towns, and barrel bombs dropped on residential areas from Syrian helicopters in the three days of what the Syrian government declared to be a “regime of calm.” Another 70 were killed Monday, according to the Local Coordination Committee, a civilian body which operates in rebel-held zones.
Doctors at the Aleppo siege medical center said they couldn’t determine the casualty toll on the road Sunday, because so many wounded or dead were pinned in their vehicles, unable to escape or be recovered because of sniper fire.
Rebels struck back early Monday, attacking regime forces in government-held western Aleppo, and they claim to have killed 53 troops. On Tuesday, the BBC reported that rebels fired hundreds of shells at the western neighborhoods.
Although local authorities have laid in sufficient food and medical supplies to last several months, the siege has already had an impact on the more than 300,000 people who live in the city’s eastern districts. Fresh fruits and vegetables had been in ample supply until last weekend, but local media Tuesday said prices are rising rapidly, produce is fast disappearing from the market and dairy products are scarce.
The Syrian political opposition sounded its alarm Tuesday over the siege of Aleppo and big regime advances on the ground in Darayya, a town just outside Damascus, urging the UN Security Council to hold an emergency session to demand compliance with its unanimous Resolution 2254 of last December, which called for a cease-fire, an end to all sieges, free transit for all humanitarian supplies and the release of political detainees.
But the opposition sounded their outcry fully aware no one was listening.
“The Syrian people are not shocked at all with what the regime has been doing,” Anas Alabdah, the president of the Opposition Coalition, said here. “We are shocked by the international reaction — of silence.”
“It is a shame that the world in the 21st century is watching an 8,000-year-old city destroyed on the heads of its inhabitants and bombed with 200 air raids and dozens of barrel bombs daily without doing anything,” said Alabdah.
In the face of the regime offensive, returning to U.S.-Russian sponsored talks with the Syrian government is “useless,” he said.
The U.S. and its allies in Europe and the Middle East already for several years have supplied small arms up to the level of anti-tank weapons to thousands of rebel fighters and only modestly stepped up the arms flow after Russia sent its air force in late last September to intervene on the side of the Assad regime.
On Tuesday, Anas renewed a longstanding appeal for sophisticated defensive weapons including anti-aircraft MANPADS, and the setting up of safe areas on Syrian territory where the millions who’ve fled government attacks could take refuge.
There is no sign this is about to happen.
Now it’ a question whether the U.S. is willing to stand by and watch Aleppo fall.
Anas said he had contacted U.S. officials to appeal for help in halting the government offensive, “and they promised to put pressure on Russia.” But he said he was told “Russia is no longer interacting” as it previously had.
The Syrian opposition also drew attention to Darayya, an agricultural area outside Damascus and one of the first locations for the national uprising. The population of some 8,000 is now being squeezed by regime advances.
Fadi Mohammad, spokesman for the Darayya military council, said regime forces have now taken control of a significant part of the region’s agricultural zone, a possible prelude to an attempt to starve the population into submission. Using barrel bombs—some 8,000 have been dropped on Daraya, another eight on Tuesday —the regime has forced farmers into the town, even as it blocks humanitarian access, he said.
The regime was “taking advantage of the international silence to tighten the siege” of Darayya “and bring it back to medieval times,” he charged.
The air and ground and offensive on the Castello road began Thursday. After losing several positions to regime forces, supplemented by Iranian, Lebanese Hezbollah and other units, the moderate Nour Eddin Zinki front combined forces with Jabhat al Nusra, the Al Qaida affiliate in Syria, with which it previously had distant and even hostile relations.
Late Saturday, aided by Nusra’s deployment of three suicide bombers, the combined force recaptured several of the positions, Aleppo media reported. But on Sunday morning the regime and its Russian ally struck back, launching more than 100 missiles at the opposition forces and retaking its positions.
Among those most likely to be most embarrassed by the latest turn of event is the Obama administration, which had been counting on Russia to pressure Syrian President Bashar al Assad to stop the bombing.
Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have been caught flat-footed when the Syrian government announced the three-day “regime of calm” Thursday to mark the Eid, a several-day celebration throughout the Muslim world that follows a month of fasting during Ramadan.
“We welcome, very much welcome,” the announcement, Kerry declared. He said he “hoped” it was an outgrowth of U.S.-Russian discussions that would lead to an extension beyond the declared 72 hours and then “into a longer-lasting real, enforceable, accountable cessation of hostilities.”
“We hope that the 72 hours could perhaps be a harbinger of possibilities to come,” he said.
Instead it may be the harbinger of a major defeat for the Syrian opposition and another turn for the worse in the already catastrophic humanitarian crisis enveloping the Syrian people.