Syrian forces supported by Russian air power beat back rebel gains around the embattled city of Aleppo on Saturday, tightening the siege on opposition-held areas where civilians are grappling with critically low supplies of food and medicine.
Embattled Aleppo, divided between rebel control on the east and government control on the west, has become one of the most violent battlegrounds of the five-year civil war between President Bashar al-Assad and rebels seeking to oust him. The last main urban stronghold of the opposition, eastern Aleppo’s 275,000 residents are trapped inside and in October suffered a fierce air campaign by Assad forces and Russia, which intervened on his behalf last year.
Russia placed a moratorium on air strikes on the rebel-held eastern districts in recent weeks, but has supported the government’s counter-offensive against the rebels, who have been bombarding government held districts that are home to some 1.5m people.
Two weeks ago, rebels aligned with radical jihadist groups to attack the government-held western districts in a bid to divert regime forces and relieve pressure on besieged opposition areas that have been blockaded for more than two months.
On Saturday, Syrian armed forces backed by Iraqi and Lebanese Shia militias recaptured the Dahiyat al-Assad suburb in western Aleppo, days after recapturing the strategic 1070 Apartments district in the south-west — critical because it was positioned along a route used by government forces to enter the city.
Earlier this week, UN humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland warned that aid workers in eastern Aleppo were handing out their final food rations — the last aid shipment sent into the area was in July. He warned of worsening conditions as winter sets in if the UN cannot get warring sides to agree on a ‘humanitarian pause’ to allow aid workers to bring in aid safely.
“I am fearing it could get much worse. I am hopeful that we could get our UN initiative going again. I do not think anybody wants a quarter of a million people to be starving in east Aleppo,” he told reporters on Thursday.
Moscow on Saturday said it was willing to agree to another UN humanitarian pause if aid workers could confirm they would be able to complete the operation without rebel attack — it accuses opposition fighters of foiling previous attempts at bringing in aid, while rebels accuse regime forces.
Inside eastern Aleppo, activist Hisham Skaff said members of the opposition’s local council were running low on flour and cutting back on bread distributions that residents depend on.
“We used to distribute four times a week, 6 pieces of bread per family. Now we are distributing three times a week and only five pieces,” he said.
Medicine for people with chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart problems was critically low, he said. “This situation is very, very hard. It is getting harder in every way.”
Russia has for days been warning of a new air campaign against the rebel-held districts of Aleppo, with locals bracing for a resumption of the nearly 24-hour bombardment that ripped apart streets, destroyed hospitals, and took 450 lives during a campaign that lasted several weeks, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside the country, said rebels for their part had killed 92 people in their two-week offensive on the western side.