Rebels Lose Ground as Syrian Military Pushes to Aleppo

A boy inspects a damaged site after airstrikes on the rebel-held Tariq al-Bab neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on Friday. Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

The Syrian army and allied militia seized ground north of Aleppo on Saturday, tightening a siege of the city's rebel-held east as it came under fierce air strikes in a major Russian-backed offensive that has left Washington's Syria policy in tatters.

The capture of the Handarat camp a few kilometres north of Aleppo marked the first major ground advance of the offensive, which the government announced on Thursday. Residents of the rebel-held half of the city say warplanes have unleashed unprecedented firepower.

Saturday's advance captured the camp for Palestinian refugees on elevated ground overlooking one of the main roads into Aleppo. Handarat had been in rebel hands for years.

"Handarat has fallen," an official with one of the main Aleppo rebel groups told Reuters. An army statement confirming the advance said "large numbers of terrorists" had been killed.

Dozens of people have been reported killed in eastern Aleppo since the army announced the new offensive late on Thursday, burying any remaining hope for reviving a ceasefire that was brokered by the United States and Russia, but which Moscow and its ally President Bashar al-Assad abandoned after a week. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was left pleading this week with Russia to halt air strikes, but was ignored.

The collapse of peacemaking, and Assad's decision to launch an all-out assault on the last big urban area still in rebel hands, appears to mark a turning point in a conflict that was stalemated for years. Assad and his allies seem more determined than ever to crush the nearly six-year-old rebellion by force.

Residents say air strikes on eastern Aleppo have been more intense than ever, using more powerful bombs. Rebel officials said heavy air strikes on Saturday hit at least four areas of the opposition-held east, and they believe the strikes are mostly being carried out by Russian warplanes. Video of the blast sites show huge craters several meters wide and deep.

Western countries and international aid organizations say they fear for the lives of more than 250,000 people civilians believed to be trapped in the rebel-held zone of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, divided into opposition and government sectors for years. The army says it is only targeting militants.

"There are planes in the sky now," Ammar al Selmo, the head of the Civil Defence rescue service in the opposition-held east, told Reuters from Aleppo on Saturday morning.

The group draws on ambulance workers and volunteers who dig survivors and dead bodies out of the rubble, often with their bare hands. It says several of its own headquarters have been targeted. "Our teams are responding but are not enough to cover this amount of catastrophe."

'Under the Rubble'

Damascus and allies including Shi'ite militia from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon have encircled rebel-held areas of Aleppo gradually this year, achieving their long-held objective of fully besieging the area this summer with Russian air support.

A pro-government Iraqi militia commander in the Aleppo area told Reuters the aim was to capture all of Aleppo within a week.

A Western diplomat said on Friday the only way for the government to take the area quickly would be to totally destroy it in "such a monstrous atrocity that it would resonate for generations."

A Syrian military source told Reuters the operation announced late on Thursday was continuing according to plan, but declined to give further details. The source said on Friday the operation could go on for some time.

Asked about the weapons being used, the source said the army was using precise weapons "suitable for the nature of the targets being struck, according to the type of fortifications," such as tunnels and bunkers, and "specifically command centers."

A senior official in an Aleppo-based rebel faction, the Levant Front, told Reuters the weapons appeared designed to bring down entire buildings.

"Most of the victims are under the rubble because more than half the civil defense has been forced out of service," he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organization that reports on the war, said it had documented 72 deaths since Friday, including five children. Selmo of the Civil Defence said the toll was more than 100. "The raids are intense and continuous," Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters.

The Syrian army says it is targeting rebel positions in the city and denies hitting civilians.

"Every missile makes an earthquake we feel regardless of how far off the bombardment is," one Aleppo resident said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a revival of a ceasefire in Syria depended on all sides involved and not only on "Russia's unilateral concessions.

"One can only speak about the ceasefire revival only on the collective basis," he said in an interview for the TV news show Vesti on Saturday.