Syria, Russia pound rebel areas in Aleppo but advances halted

Insurgents say counter-attacks have stopped government troops as US seeks deal with Russia

ALEPPO/BEIRUT • Syria's military and Russia's warplanes bombarded rebel-held districts of Aleppo yesterday as Damascus' allies said victory was near, but insurgents fought back and army advances were halted after rapid gains during the week.

The United States said it was meeting a Russian team in Geneva to find a way to save lives, but an agreement looked elusive as the two countries, which back opposing sides, have repeatedly failed to strike a deal to allow evacuations and help aid deliveries.

US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Russia to show "a little grace" before the meeting yesterday.

"Fighters ... don't trust that if they agreed to leave to try to save Aleppo that it will save Aleppo and they will be unharmed," Mr Kerry told reporters in Paris after a meeting of countries opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad .

"I believe there could be a way forward but it depends on big, magnanimous choices from Russia... and (the) insistence of Russia on the Assad regime," he said.

Russia, whose military intervention helped turn the war in Mr Assad's favour, said the Syrian government now controls 93 per cent of Aleppo, a figure Reuters could not independently verify.

Its recapture would deal a major blow to rebels who have fought to unseat Mr Assad in the nearly six-year war.

The insurgents are holed out in a handful of areas, mostly south of the historic Old City, having lost nearly three-quarters of territory they controlled for years in the space of around two weeks.

Lebanese Shi'ite group Hizbollah, a key military ally of Damascus alongside Russia and Iran, said late on Friday that a "promised victory" in Aleppo was imminent and would change the course of the war.

The advances mean the government appears closer to victory than at any point since 2011 protests against Mr Assad evolved into armed rebellion.

The war has killed more than 300,000 people and made more than 11 million homeless.

Russia and Syria said on Friday they had reduced military operations to allow civilians to leave.

But rebels say their counter-attacks are what have halted government advances.

"There's no advance by the regime. They (rebels) have stopped them several times," said Mr Zakaria Malahifji, a Turkey-based official in the Fastaqim rebel group.

Government forces launched an attack in the Izaa area near the Old City early yesterday which insurgents repelled, destroying an army tank, he said.

Mr Mohammed Shaaban, standing outside a destroyed church in the Old City, was astounded by the destruction.

"A year and a half ago when I last visited, there was not this level of damage. I'm shocked and saddened. They destroyed civilisation and humanity," he said, referring to the rebels.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline 'Syria, Russia pound rebel areas in Aleppo but advances halted'. Print Edition | Subscribe