Parts of Aleppo show the cost of the relentless bombing
It was the calm before the impending storm yesterday in the Syrian city of Aleppo.
A deadline given by the government to those in the opposition-held east to leave or face the wrath of their warplanes expired at 7pm on Friday night. But all was quiet over Syria’s second city on Saturday.
Not a single person left through the humanitarian corridors opened by the government.
Officials accused the rebels of firing on one of the crossings in an attempt to stop civilians leaving. East Aleppo residents, meanwhile, said they were afraid they would be arrested on the other side if they left.
It was not immediately clear what the government and its Russians allies were waiting for yesterday, but what was clear was that they were preparing for what is set to be the “final” assault on the ancient city.
Several hundred Syrian and Russian troops were seen moving into position south of Aleppo by the Sunday Telegraph on Thursday, and a Russian frigate armed with cruise missiles was reportedly on its way to the eastern Mediterranean.
This paper, and a handful of other Western journalists, were able to report inside the city for the first time in years this week after the government granted rare visas.
While the scale of suffering and destruction on its side of the city does not compare to the rebel-controlled east, what was clear was that no side is untouched by the devastating war.
We negotiated our way through its narrow, dim-lit streets in an unmarked bus, escorted by half a dozen Syrian troops and a small army of government minders.
The sound of incoming mortars came every few minutes from the rebel side, some far in the distance, others too close for comfort.
Some 75 civilians have been killed here this week, and more than 300 injured.
The attacks have intensified in recent days after rebel groups launched a fresh offensive to break a government siege which has left some 200,000 people trapped in the eastern side.
By night, west Aleppo is pitch black. It has been more than a year since it last had electricity.
Most residents cannot afford generators. The Syrian pound has dropped to just a 10th of its value before the war and even the cheapest ones now cost an average of six month’s wages.
Walking through the Old City, which has become the frontline between the west and east, there is little left standing to remember it by.
Most of the great trading capital’s historic sites, including the al-Madina Souq, a market that dates back to the 13th century, now lies in ruins or burnt to ashes after years of fierce fighting between rebel groups and the army.
Every one of its stalls has been destroyed. Mannequin legs and bits of cotton lie abandoned on the floor of al-Samah, what was once the most famous textile house in the Middle East.
Just one shopkeeper, Abu Alnour, still trades amidst the rubble, refusing to leave the small stand his family has run for the past five decades. He makes a few pounds a day selling tea, bread and omelettes to passing soldiers.
“I was here during the height of the battle,” said Ibrahim Hassan, an officer in the Syrian army, standing in front of the destroyed 14th century Sahabi Fistok mosque. “We could not bring in artillery, so we were fighting building-to-building through the narrow streets with machine guns.
Rebels conduct suicide attack on Government-held area in AleppoPlay!00:40
“There was no time to worry about preserving our history,” he said, “we were trying to save our future.”
Looking around us, he estimated that 80 per cent has been damaged beyond repair.
One veteran Russian photographer in our group compared the destruction to Grozny – the Chechen capital decimated by Russian forces in the 1990s.
Government forces may have retaken the Old City years ago, but the battle for it is clearly far from over.
Snipers still operate and those who walk in the open take their life into their hands. The army has erected large metal sheets in order to hide from view as they move between streets.
The timing of our visit was significant. The regime, and its Russian allies, believe they are on the brink of a bloody victory in Aleppo.
The increasingly confident government was keen to put forward some of its most senior figures to address the foreign guests.
Their message was that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was here to stay and that the West had made a mistake in backing his opponents.
It is true that the president has outlasted many of his contemporaries; Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were quickly toppled by the Arab Spring uprisings that swept through the Middle East in 2011.
Few had predicted that the London-trained ophthalmologist would still be standing five years later.
Today he appears stronger than at any time in the conflict, largely down to the Russian intervention which bolstered the exhausted Syrian military last year and has since swung the war in his favour.
While he may have lost control over large parts of his country, a significant proportion of the remaining 17 million residents live in regime areas. And if the rest of Aleppo falls back into his hands, Mr Assad’s survival could be all-but secured.
Airstrike on western Aleppo caught on cameraPlay!00:42
His government knows a “win” in Syria’s second city could force the West into a political settlement, one that would be made entirely on Mr Assad’s terms.
When asked by the Sunday Telegraph what he thought would happen if they managed to retake the east, Walid Mouallem, the foreign minister, said the US would have to reconsider its policy.
Washington has been leading calls for Mr Assad to step down since the summer of 2011, after his troops fired on peaceful protesters in the city of Daraa.
“If we succeed in winning back Aleppo, which I’m sure we will, the West must rethink their mistake,” Mr Mouallem said.
He struck a defiant tone at a press conference at the foreign ministry in the Syrian capital of Damascus on Monday, rejecting what he called a Western media “hysteria” over Aleppo.
He insisted there had been no civilian casualties from the air force’s merciless bombing campaign over east Aleppo and that our reports had been based on “lies and incorrect information”.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the deaths of thousands of civilians on the rebel side of the city since the start of the year. Meanwhile, the UN has accused the government of deliberately targeting hospitals, schools and residential areas.
Drone films devastation in Aleppo’s Sukari neighbourhoodPlay!01:24
The line given by all the senior government officials interviewed is that anyone supporting the opposition is a terrorist, there was no grey area.
“How can there be reconciliation once this war is over, minister, if the government doesn’t admit any responsibility for it?” one journalist asked. He did not receive an answer.
Mr Assad himself insisted in an interview during our stay that he could remain in power at least until his third seven-year term ends in 2021, ruling out political changes until government forces won the war.
The Syrian president went on to blame America for the war ravaging his country, and said that he had been misrepresented in its media.
“The headline is ‘The bad President, the bad guy, is killing the good guys,” he told reporters from his office in Damascus. “‘They are the freedom fighters.’ And so on. It’s black and white.”
Mr Assad has cultivated something of a suffocating cult of personality in Syria, like his late father Hafez before him.
Pictures of the mustachioed leader adorn shop windows, billboards and military checkpoints – not just in Damascus but in tiny towns and villages across the country.
In some he is shown beside a smiling Assad Snr, while more recently his face has begun to appear next to Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s leader, and Russian president Vladimir Putin.
He still enjoys considerable support in many of the country’s biggest cities.
“Under the Assads everyone lived together in peace in Syria for years,” Metri Touma told me from in his carpentry workshop in Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of Damascus’ old city.
“Before, we thought the rebels’ big problem was Assad,” he said. “Now we realise they just want to destroy the country.”
The residents of east Aleppo would disagree, however. And as they brace for what is set to be the most ferocious attack yet, they have a differing idea of who is out to destroy the country.
What is clear is that the two sides of this war have become so bitterly divided that whatever the outcome in Aleppo in the coming days and weeks, peace seems a long way off in Syria.
Newly commissioned Russian warship Admiral Gligorovich has a fearsome ground attack capability in the form of Kalibr cruise missiles
Russian navy’s frigate, the Admiral Grigorovich. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters
A Russian frigate armed with cruise missiles has passed through the Bosphorus on its way to the eastern Mediterranean in a potentially ominous development for the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo.
The Admiral Grigorovich, part of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, arrived off the Syrian coast on Friday as the latest pause in the Russian bombardment of eastern Aleppo came to an end, adding to an emphatic Russian show of naval force in the Mediterranean.
Unlike the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier and Peter the Great nuclear-powered battle cruiser, whose arrival in the region has drawn considerable publicity, the newly commissioned Grigorovich has a fearsome ground attack capability in the form of Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles.
Three Russian submarines from Russia’s northern fleet capable of firing Kalibr missiles are also reported to have arrived in the Mediterranean.
Russia has used Kalibr missiles, equivalent to US Tomahawk missiles, against Syrian targets a handful of times over the past year. The concentration of forces in the eastern Mediterranean in support of the Syrian regime’s ambitions to retake Aleppo from rebel forces, suggest they may be used again in the coming few days or hours.
Earlier this week, Vladimir Putin warned Syrian rebels and civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo to leave the city by Friday night, when a temporary moratorium on air strikes was set to expire.
But opposition groups told the Guardian that promised safe passages out of besieged areas did not exist. As the deadline drew near, opposition groups pushed on with an assault on loyalist west Aleppo, while residents seemed resigned to a resumption in airstrikes.
“Nothing can be done. Nobody can stop the planes,” Bebars Mishal, an official with the White Helmets volunteer rescue service, told Reuters.
The Kuznetsov battle group paused in its approach towards Syria off the east coast of Crete on Thursday, to carry out aviation exercises. Russian ministry of defence footage showed warplanes taking off and landing on its deck. The Kuznetsov is carrying about 10 Sukhoi-33 and four Mig-29 fighter aircraft, as well as up to two dozen helicopters. Although the Su-33s have recently been adapted to drop bombs more accurately, the plane has never been used for ground attack. Only the Mig-29 is designed for that purpose.
If the planes are used to bomb targets in Syria, it would mark the first time Russiahas used its only aircraft carrier in combat. That lack of experience, however, may limit its usefulness.
“There are very few carrier-trained pilots. In fact, there are more planes than pilots, and most of the planes on board are not made for ground attack. For naval aviation this is largely a training run,” Michael Kofman, a Russian specialist at the Centre for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research institute.
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CREDIT: NORWEGIAN NAVY