””

SPECIAL REPORT

Crushing resistance

Syrian govt and Russian allies using kill-all-who-resist strategy to regain Aleppo

BEIRUT • Make life intolerable and death likely. Open an escape route, or offer a deal to those who leave or surrender. Let people trickle out. Kill whoever stays. Repeat until a deserted cityscape is yours.

It is a strategy that both the Syrian government and its Russian allies have long embraced to subdue Syrian rebels, largely by crushing the civilian populations that support them.

But in the past few days, as hopes for a revived ceasefire have disintegrated at the United Nations, the Syrians and Russians seem to be mobilising to apply this kill-all-who-resist strategy to the most ambitious target yet: the rebel-held sections of the divided metropolis of Aleppo.

The killing and destruction in Syria, of course, have stupefied much of the world during the past five years. But they could pale in comparison with a military assault to retake all of Aleppo, once Syria's largest city and still home to about two million people, roughly 250,000 of them in rebel-held territory.

A takeover battle could mean "a slow, grinding, street-by-street fight, over the course of months, if not years," the UN special envoy for Syria, Mr Staffan de Mistura, warned on Sunday, speaking at an emergency Security Council session on Syria, in which outright confrontation replaced any effort to find diplomatic common ground.

East Aleppo would be, by far, the biggest and most fortified area that government forces have sought to retake with scorched-earth tactics of siege and bombardment - called "starve-or-submit" after slogans scrawled outside besieged areas by pro-government militiamen.

The tactics have succeeded in much smaller areas: in encircled suburbs of the capital, Damascus, and in rebel enclaves in the central city of Homs - first in the historic Old City and, most recently, last week, in the outlying neighbourhood of Waer. In the past few days, pro-government forces have signalled that they are escalating efforts to press the tactics to their conclusion in Aleppo, step by step.

On Sunday, Syria's UN ambassador punctuated the message, declaring that the government would reclaim all of the city. First came new waves of air strikes, Aleppo's worst bombardment of the war.

The bombings were so ferocious that the United States and Britain accused Russia of "barbarism" and "war crimes" for backing the Syrian air campaign. A provisional death toll provided by local non-governmental organisations suggested that at least 85 people had been killed since early Sunday.

Rescue workers in Aleppo reported that their cars and headquarters were among the first targets hit on Friday. The effect was instant: Now, when people are buried in rubble, no one comes... Relatives are again exhuming their loved ones with their hands.

DOCTORS OVERWHELMED

The doctors can do nothing but triage on the floor, and still the bodies keep coming. They don't even have time to take a sip of water. We're seeing massacres every hour.

DR MAHER SAQQUR, a Syrian neurosurgeon, speaking from a Canadian clinic where he consults with Aleppo doctors via Skype.

"This is the worst day," said Mr Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, an English teacher living close to the city's front line. "The people here are psychologically broken."

It was not just the volume of bombs that made the air strikes devastating. They also hit, one by one, the systems that have kept life inching along. Rescue workers in Aleppo reported that their cars and headquarters were among the first targets hit on Friday. The effect was instant: Now, when people are buried in rubble, no one comes. Or it takes longer for them to arrive. Relatives are again exhuming their loved ones with their hands.

Next, a much deadlier weapon than had been seen before was introduced: a heavy-duty ground- penetrating bomb known as a bunker-buster. Turning whole buildings into craters yards deep, these bombs also threaten basement shelters and water pipes - not to mention the schools, clinics and even playgrounds built underground over the years to help minimise the damage of air strikes.

Residents say fuel and medical supplies are low, forcing doctors to turn off oxygen machines and operate by the light of their cellphones. "We've never seen anything this bad," Dr Maher Saqqur, a Syrian neurosurgeon, said on Sunday, speaking from a Canadian clinic where he consults with Aleppo doctors via Skype.

"The doctors can do nothing but triage on the floor, and still the bodies keep coming. They don't even have time to take a sip of water. We're seeing massacres every hour," he said.

As medical workers, rescuers and residents navigate the chaos, every now and then, on their phones, a text message pings, offering help. The texts, from the government, say that Russia is providing aid to people in the government-held side of the city, and is available to anyone who returns to the bosom of the state.

  • ALEPPO: FACTS AND FIGURES

    • Located at one end of the Silk Road, it was an ancient metropolis.

    • Widely regarded as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

    • Most populous city in Syria with 2.13 million people, according to the last census in 2004.

    • Once named as a World Heritage Site, it not only served as Syria's financial and industrial centre but was also regarded as a place of high cuisine and culture.

    • Since 2012, the city has been a key battleground in the civil war raging between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and rebels. Control of the city has changed a number of times this year.

    • Home to an estimated 275,000 people, east Aleppo's rebel-held neighbourhoods have been under near-continuous siege since government troops encircled the area in mid-July.

    • Last Thursday, the regime launched an all-out offensive to retake the eastern half of the city.

    • Aleppo is of strategic importance as it is just 50km to the Turkish border and is the main supply route for rebels in the north.

The Syrian state news media broadcasts images of the night life on the other side of Aleppo, its lit skyline viewable from the darker rebel side. Those images play down the struggles of people on the government side, who have faced their own suffering with rebel shelling, water shortages and economic collapse.

Russia says it has opened safe corridors, and Syrian state television has reported that people have fled through them. Other residents say they have tried to approach the corridors, only to be shot at; each side blames the other for trapping people there.

Yet if other places are any indication, some people in East Aleppo may eventually take a deal at any cost. In Homs, in the Damascus suburb of Daraya and elsewhere, fighters and civilians have concluded that they are stuck in a war of attrition. They have agreed either to take their chances in government territory - seeking "regularisation" of their status and the clearing of any criminal records, but risking re-arrest - or to be bussed to rebel-held territory, where they risk further bombing.

The groundwork for that kind of choice has been laid in eastern Aleppo.

NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2016, with the headline 'Crushing resistance'. Print Edition | Subscribe