Russia and Assad to pound rebels as east Aleppo braces for attack

The Syrian regime’s offer of safe passage for civilians has been shunned – now they are preparing for a renewed aerial onslaught

Besieged east Aleppo is braced for a fierce bombardment by Russian and Syrian aircraft as rebel forces intensify their efforts to break the siege using suicide attackers and heavy artillery.

The attacks have claimed dozens of lives in western Aleppo, normally far less dangerous than the rebel-held east, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On the other side of the barricades there is a sense of apprehension in the shattered streets of east Aleppo, as hopes that the siege might be broken mingle with fear of the impending attacks.

“There has been movement, people have been going to the markets even though they are empty of food and vegetables, but they’re going out. Kids are coming to the side streets to play with their friends,” said Omar Arab, a local journalist in east Aleppo.

“When the bombing stops, they go out because they’re suffocating from the bombardment. But when the regime waits for a couple of days they make up for it by carrying out massacres.”

The assault on the west of the city came at the same time as a relative lull in air strikes inside heavily bombed eastern areas as the government of President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters tried to tempt civilians in opposition-held areas to leave through “safe passage” corridors.

An empty street in rebel-held east Aleppo leads to a crossing point with the government-held neighbourhood of al-Masharka
An empty street in rebel-held east Aleppo leads to a crossing point with the government-held neighbourhood of al-Masharka, one of several designated evacuation corridors. Photograph: Karam Al-Masri/AFP/Getty Images

Leaflets dropped from the air and text messages to residents of opposition-held areas urged them to leave during the break in hostilities, and warned that those who stay “will be annihilated”.

But even those who would like to leave the hungry and dangerous east are distrustful of promises from the government, which has imprisoned, murdered, tortured and caused the disappearance of tens of thousands of opponents since Syria slid into civil war.

Almost no one came through the corridors, which opposition fighters said were not actually safe. Now those living in the besieged areas are bracing for fresh attacks, with the arrival of a Russian frigate armed with cruise missiles adding to apprehension.

Among those preparing for an attack are doctors and other medical workers. Hospitals have been repeatedly targeted by government-led air strikes. The Syrian regime says that rebels use them as military bases, turning medics and patients into human shields, a claim which doctors reject.

“It’s totally untrue. We’ve showed photos of the whole hospital, we even had American doctors here,” said Mohammad Abu Rajab, a hospital director, recently injured in a bombing.

The ruins of bombed hospitals have been extensively videoed and photographed, and none of the footage has ever included weapons or parts of them.

“They lie until people believe them. Weapons in the hospitals? What weapons? We are treating people, it has an operation room, an intensive care unit, beds, a patient wing.”

There are thought to be between 200,000 and 300,000 civilians still living under siege in east Aleppo, which has endured years of barrel bombing from government troops and more recently attacks with bunker-buster bombs, napalm and chemical weapons.

A Syrian pro-government soldier, south of al-Hamdaniya, in east Aleppo.
A Syrian pro-government soldier, south of al-Hamdaniya, in east Aleppo. Photograph: George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images

“We expect everything from Russia,” said one former official from Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline Islamist group also fighting in Aleppo. “There isn’t a type of weapon that hasn’t been used by either the Russians or the Assad regime, including chlorine gas. Do they have anything else?”

The UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned last month that east Aleppo could be destroyed by Christmas, and called on the world to intervene to avoid “another Rwanda, another Srebrenica”.

He offered to personally go to the city and escort out the jihadi factions that Russia and Assad’s government say control the east, and insist are their main targets.

But while the push to break the siege has been led by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, until recently allied to al-Qaida and which shares much of its world view, more moderate groups say that it does not control the city.

“The entire strength is with the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, they are the ones in control in Aleppo, and they are from Aleppo,” said Sharif al-Halabi, a spokesperson for Fastaqim, one of the main rebel factions in the city’s east.

He said that the opposition still had the support of most people in the city, pointing out that they had chosen to stay as government troops tightened control of areas around Aleppo, even after the siege was briefly broken in the summer.

“Of course under bombardment people are going to be restless and complain, but the fact of the matter is the majority of those who live in the liberated areas are with the Free Syrian Army despite the siege.”


Kareem Shaheen in Beirut and Emma Graham-Harrison

The GuardianTramp

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