Will Syria’s Assad get the message? Ask Russia and Iran, say former US officials

Former top US officials are uncertain whether the Syria strikes will achieve their intended goal, to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons. But the attacks sent some key additional messages.

Rubble at the destroyed Scientific Research Centre (Reuters/O. Sanadiki)

The Trump administration made clear that attacks against Syria’s chemical weapons program had one purpose: to deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using such weapons again in future as he had done, the United States and others said, recently in the city of Douma.

Friday night’s strike came one year after the US hit the Assad regime in similar fashion after Damascus had allegedly carried out a deadly chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. This time, however, the US was not acting alone, and it, along with France and the UK, conducted significantly more strikes than a year ago.

Read moreAirstrikes in Syria: What you need to know

The fresh US-led action, described as a one-off attack, capped a tumultuous lead-up that started, as has become routine in Washington, with a presidential tweet. In it, Trump promised swift and tough US military action, denounced Assad and taunted Russia and Iran. The tweet triggered international alarm about an imminent attack in one of the world’s most volatile regions, and left US officials scrambling for answers.

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!

When the attack came — days after Trump’s initial timeline — it was in concert with two allies and clearly limited in scope to a narrow set of targets. To many observers, the military action looked more like a restrained response than a broader one initially forecast by Trump. That’s led to several questions:

Will Assad still get the message and stop using chemical weapons?

“I am underwhelmed,” said Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Syria, who also served as Washington’s envoy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. “We basically did the same thing we did a year ago on a slightly larger scale. But it is not going to do any lasting damage to Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future or anything else.”

Watch video00:30

Stoltenberg: All NATO allies back Syria airstrikes

“Will this deter him — that’s a question that remains open,” said Philip Breedlove, the former NATO and US military commander in Europe. “Remember that this criminal, this monster leader of Syria, enjoys the support and the enabling capabilities and the exterior political support of Russia and Iran.”

Read more: US-led strikes on Syria: A move with unpredictable consequences

While it’s difficult to predict Assad’s response, to change his calculus would probably require action that threatened the very foundation of his regime, said Mona Yacoubian, a Syria scholar at the United States Institute of Peace. “In that sense, these strikes were probably too limited to do that.”

All three experts highlighted the influence of Russia and Iran on the Assad regime.

Putin besucht russische Luftwaffenbasis in Syrien (picture-alliance/dpa/M.Klimentyev)It’s Putin who will have the most influence on Syria’s use of chemical weapons, not US strikes

“Remember that Mr. Assad by himself is not capable of all these things that are going on around him,” said Breedlove. “He is enabled, empowered and encouraged by Russia and Iran.”

“If they say don’t do this again, he probably won’t do it again,” agreed Crocker, referring to Moscow and Tehran’s sway over Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

“I would look at Iran particularly,” the former US diplomat said, adding, “I can’t believe the Iranians are just fine with this. They suffered a great deal from chemical attacks in the Iran-Iraq war. They know what it’s like.”

Russia, said Yacoubian, despite some bellicose rhetoric, also could have no interest in escalating a conflict with the US over Syria and might be inclined to clamp down on Assad’s use of chemical weapons for its own reasons.

A British jet about to take off for a mission in Syria (picture-alliance/AP Photo/L. Matthews)The US was right to seek allies for the strikes, but having just two may not have been a strong signal

While Crocker supported Washington’s decision to not strike Syria alone this time, he said the lack of participation of any other nations aside from Britain and France sent a bad signal to Arab countries in light of next year’s 100th anniversary of the Versailles Treaty, which ended World War I. “No one in the West will tweet to this, everybody in the Middle East will because the British and the French, of course, were the ones who divided up the Ottoman Middle Eastern territories.”

The former US diplomat also expressed his astonishment about the timing of Berlin’s announcement not to participate in a military strike against Syria.

“I found it more than a little sad and disturbing that Germany chose International Holocaust Remembrance Day to make a public statement that under no circumstances whatsoever would Germany participate in a strike on a chemical weapons facility,” said Crocker.

What do the strikes tell us about the Trump administration?

Washington, US-Präsident Donald Trump spricht während einer Kabinettssitzung im Weißen Haus (Reuters/K.Lamarque )Mattis is one of very few Cabinet members who have not felt the ire of the president

Asked whether the US response could be read as a sign that the Pentagon, which under Defense Secretary James Mattis had advocated for a careful and coordinated response, had prevailed over the White House’s initial call for swift action, the experts rejected such an interpretation as going too far.

Still, the nature and the execution of the attack prove that Mattis plays an important role right now, said Crocker. “Pretty clearly he is able to calm the president down,” he said. “Not many people can do that.”

Read more: What foreign powers want from the Syrian war

Former NATO Commander Breedlove, who declined to engage in politics, praised Mattis and General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

“What you have seen here is that these two incredible military leaders have given their boss, the commander-in-chief, their advice, and the commander-in-chief made the decision based on that advice. Frankly, I think they got it right.”

USA John Bolton (Imago/Zumapress)Many wonder what Bolton’s role will be in shaping US foreign policy

Experts have wondered whether Trump will continue to heed the counsel of his military leaders, particularly with the ascent of the hardline John Bolton as national security adviser.

Similarly interesting will be whether Trump’s newly formed team of Pentagon chief Mattis, Bolton and Mike Pompeo, who appears likely to be confirmed as the new secretary of state, will address what Crocker, the former Syria ambassador, calls the administration’s underlying problem.

“There still is no Syria strategy in Washington.”

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Merkel, German government say US missile strikes in Syria ‘understandable’

Germany has signaled support for the American military action – without explicitly backing it, calling the strikes “limited and targeted.” But the opposition criticized the Trump administration’s move.

Watch video01:22

Merkel: US attack on Syria is ‘understandable’

Speaking at an event for refugee helpers in Berlin, Angela Merkel once again condemned the “chemical weapons massacre of innocent people in Syria” and implied that the US missile strikes in response were justified.

“We all know that chemical weapons are condemned internationally and that anyone who uses them commits a war crime,” Merkel said, calling the US response “limited and targeted.”

Merkel also reiterated an earlier statement she issued together with French President Francois Hollande that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was “solely responsible for the latest developments.”

“In view of the dimensions of this war crime, the suffering of innocent people and the blockade in the United Nations Security Council, the attack by the US is understandable,” the conservative chancellor said.

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said on Friday that German Tornado reconnaissance jets would not provide assistance for further US attacks on Syria. Speaking to German broadcaster SWR von der Leyen said the German jets had a clearly defined role within the international coalition to carry out reconnaissance for missions against the so-called “Islamic State.” The US had not asked for any German assistance ahead of the US missile attacks on the Syrian airbase, she said.

Watch video02:56

President Trump full remarks on US strike on Syria

Earlier this week Russia blocked a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned the chemical weapons attack.

Merkel stressed that diplomatic work was now needed to resolve the conflict in Syria.

“It remains right and crucial to devote all our energy to discussions in the UN Security council and in Geneva in to order to arrive at a transitional political solution in Syria and put a democratic end to the Assad regime,” Merkel added.

Understanding but not supporting

The German government’s line is essentially that the Assad regime’s crimes against humanity are so bad that they justify US President Donald Trump’s decision to take unilateral action. At the government’s Friday press conference, spokespeople for the chancellor and the Foreign Ministry refused to be drawn in on the question of whether the US missile strikes themselves might not be a violation of international law. Instead, they repeated multiple times that the US action was “understandable.”

Syrien USA Luftangriff auf Militärbasis (picture-alliance/AP Images/US Navy/F. Williams)US warships fired some 50 missiles at a Syrian airbase on Friday morning

The hope is that there will be no escalation of the conflict – particularly between the US and Russia – and that the missile strikes might serve to rein in the Syrian leader.

“I think this targeted attack aims at preventing the Assad regime from using chemical weapons again and ensuring that it never again comes to such horrible crimes against humanity,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Sebastian Fischer said.

A Defense Ministry spokesperson said that the ministry had been informed of the action shortly before the missiles were launched. And Fischer emphasized that the government had enough sources to think it “highly probable” that Assad was behind the chemical attacks which killed more than 80 people in Khan Sheikhoun.

But there is a difference between probability and certainty. And Merkel and her government have stopped pointedly short of explicitly declaring their support for the actions of Trump, with whom relations have been difficult, if not positively frosty.

Lack of clarity from Schulz

Earlier on Friday, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel of the Social Democrats (SPD) also said that the US missile strikes were “understandable.”

FM @sigmargabriel on US air strikes: After failure of @UN Security Council, attack on military structures understandable.

But Martin Schulz, the SPD chairman and candidate for chancellor in this year’s national election, who is not part of the government, was less clear about where he was aligned.

“For too long we Europeans have only been looking on to the US and Russia,” Schulz said.

The SPD chairman said that Europe would act “politically and not militarily” and called for a return to the negotiating table.

“This is the hour for talks, not bombs,” Schulz said, adding that he found it “more than unsettling” that the UN had not been able to formulate a “clear answer” to the poison gas attacks.

“The Security Council was incapable of doing that,” Schulz said.

Auftaktveranstaltung der NRWSPD Martin Schulz (picture-alliance/dpa/Revierfoto)Schulz’s statements were ambivalent

Opposition slams strikes, Trump

If Schulz appeared to be hedging his bets, the German opposition minced no words in criticizing the unilateral American action.

“The US military escalation must be stopped immediately,” Left Party co-chairs Sahra Wagenknecht and Dietmar Bartsch said in a statement. “Last night’s US missile attack, which violated international law, puts Syria further away from a peaceful solution and has given IS cause for celebration.”

The Left Party said Germany needed to focus on preventing the conflict between Washington and Moscow over Syria from escalating.

“Instead of reflexively getting behind Trump, the German government should do everything in its power to stabilize relations between Russia and the US,” Wagenknecht and Bartsch said. “The current situation is extremely dangerous and could get out of control at any time.”

Green Party foreign policy expert Jürgen Trittin surmised that the domestic political situation in the US and not a desire to protect the innocent had inspired the missile strikes.

“I think that concerns for international law played less of a role here than the fact that throughout the US presidential campaign, Donald Trump portrayed Barack Obama as a wimp,” Trittin told German radio.

And in their official statement, the Greens said: “Even if Russia keeps the Security Council from acting, as it emerged a few days ago, unilateral military action is not right.”

Watch video01:31

US fires cruise missiles on Syria – the first reactions

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Ban Ki-moon on President al-Assad: ‘More than 300,000 people have been killed because of his failure of leadership’

“Of course we should have started much earlier, we should have prevented Srebrenica, we should have prevented the Rwandan genocide. In Aleppo, we’re doing our utmost efforts,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

DW Conflict Zone - Gast Ban Ki-moon (DW)

Ban told DW host Michel Friedman that “the future of one person, like President Assad, should not block this process.” Asked if he considered Assad a mass murderer, Ban said that that was for other institutions to decide but added: “It’s true that because of his failure of leadership so many people have died, more than 300,000 people have been killed.”

Syrien Aleppo Bergung Opfer Luftangriff (picture-alliance/AA/I. Ebu Leys)Rescue team in Aleppo

The UN Secretary-General said that “the United States and Russia are also working very hard” to improve the situation in Syria. On diplomatic relations between Russia and the US he said: “Their relationship has been a little sensitive. I have urged Secretary Kerry and the Russian side to restore the cessation of hostilities, so we can deliver life-saving humanitarian assistance. We have to deliver a minimum for the five million people who are in besieged areas and hard-to-reach areas.”

On whether Russia is part of the problem or the solution in Syria, Ban Ki-moon said: “As a secretary general, I’m not here to make any determinations on who is wrong or who is right.”

Ban urged the UN member states “to fully abide by human rights principles and the values of the United Nations. After all, the UN exists for the people. We are serving the people.” He admitted that “there are some areas where the UN can improve its effectiveness and efficiencies.” However, crises and conflicts in Srebrenica, Darfur, Rwanda and Aleppo would have been even worse if the UN did not exist, he said. “If we didn’t have the United Nations at this time, the situation [in Aleppo] would have been much more tragic, much more bloody.”

USA UN-Sicherheitsrat tagt in New York zu Syrien (Getty Images/AFP/D. Reuter)UN Security Council in New York

On the future of the UN Security Council, Ban said: “Considering the tremendous changes which are taking place in this world, it’s natural that the member states want to see a Security Council mostly responsible for international peace and security; more democratic, more transparent, more representative, so that they can effectively address international peace and security concerns. But unfortunately, member states have not been able to agree on anything including the size or formation of how this is possible.”

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stands during meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York (Reuters/M. Segar)

Ban Ki-moon, born in South Korea in 1944, has been UN Secretary-General since 2007. When he retires in 2017, he will be succeeded by Antonio Guterres, former Portuguese prime minister and UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Renowned journalists Tim Sebastian and Michel Friedman take turns in presenting DW’s top political talk show “Conflict Zone” with German and international decision-makers. The program airs every Wednesday at 17.30 UTC and is available online on demand.

Syria conflict: Aleppo a slaughterhouse, UN rights chief says

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A man sits on rubble after learning of the deaths of relatives in a reported government air strike in the rebel-held Qaterji district of Aleppo (11 October 2016)Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionAlmost 500 people have been killed in rebel-held eastern Aleppo in the past month, the UN says

UN human rights chief Zeid Raad Al Hussein has described the Syrian city of Aleppo as a “slaughterhouse”.

In a speech, he said the siege and bombardment of Aleppo’s rebel-held east were among the “crimes of historic proportions” being committed in Syria.

Almost 500 people have been killed and 2,000 injured since government forces, backed by Russian air strikes, launched an assault on the east a month ago.

Syria’s government has said civilians are suffering because of “terrorists”.

Meanwhile, the UN said a lack of security guarantees had forced it to delay plans to carry out medical evacuations from Aleppo on Friday during the second 11-hour “humanitarian pause” declared unilaterally by the government and its ally, Russia.

One of the roads in Bustan al-Qasr that people would have to use to access one of the safe exit points opened for people wishing to leave rebel-held areas of Aleppo (20 October 2016)Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionRussia has told civilians to leave rebel-held Aleppo through several corridors

Russia has said it will also suspend air strikes between 08:00 and 19:00 local time (05:00-16:00 GMT) on Saturday to allow civilians and rebels to leave the city via safe corridors.

However, very few people have reportedly taken advantage of the offer, with rebel factions asserting that it would amount to forced displacement and surrender.

Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and the country’s commercial and industrial hub, has been devastated by fighting since 2012. It has been left divided roughly in two, with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces controlling the west and rebels the east.

At the start of September, troops and Iranian-backed militiamen severed the rebels’ last route into the east and placed its 275,000 residents under siege.

Map showing control of Aleppo - 3 October 2016

Two weeks later, following the collapse of a nationwide truce brokered by the US and Russia, the government launched a ground offensive to take full control of the city, accompanied by an aerial bombardment of unprecedented scale and intensity.

At an emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Friday, Mr Zeid warned that “crimes of historic proportions” were being committed in eastern Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.

“The ancient city of Aleppo, a place of millennial civility and beauty, is today a slaughterhouse – a gruesome locus of pain and fear, where the lifeless bodies of small children are trapped under streets of rubble and pregnant women deliberately bombed,” he said.

People listen to a speech by UN human rights chief Zeid Raad Al Hussein at the Human Rights Council in Geneva (21 October 2016)Image copyrightEPA
Image captionZeid Raad Al Hussein said the failure to protect civilians in Syria “should haunt everyone of us”

Mr Zeid added that his staff had “documented violations of international humanitarian law by all parties in Aleppo”.

“Armed opposition groups continue to fire mortars and other projectiles into civilian neighbourhoods of western Aleppo, but indiscriminate air strikes across the eastern part of the city by government forces and their allies are responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties.

“These violations constitute war crimes. And if knowingly committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against civilians, they constitute crimes against humanity.”

An injured girl is carried by a woman inside a hospital in the government-controlled Jamiliyeh district of Aleppo (16 October 2016)Image copyrightAFP
Image captionMr Zeid said rebel fighters were targeting civilians in government-held areas of Aleppo

The commissioner said the failure of the international community – particularly the UN Security Council – to protect civilians and halt the bloodshed “should haunt everyone of us”.

Syria’s permanent representative to the UN, Hussam al-Din Ala, made a visibly angry statement afterwards, insisting that the Syrian government was waging a battle against terrorism.

Later, the charity Save the Children warned that aid workers and medical professionals in eastern Aleppo were reporting the widespread use of cluster bombs, which are banned under international law.

It cited the Violations Documentation Centre, an activist-run site, as recording 137 cluster-bomb attacks in Aleppo between 10 September and 10 October – a 791% increase on the average of the previous eight months.

Russia and Syria declare brief ‘humanitarian pause’ in Aleppo, on October 20

Moscow and Damascus have announced an eight-hour cessation of violence in the besieged city of Aleppo, to take place on Thursday. This coincides with an EU meeting criticizing Russia and Syria’s role in Aleppo’s clashes.

Syrien Gefechte um Dabiq (Getty Images/AFP/N. Al-Kathib)

From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.  (1000 – 1800 GMT/UTC) Russian bombers will be grounded, and Syrian troops will hold their ground fire to allow civilians, as well as the wounded, to flee the besieged rebel-held sector of Aleppo.

Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said two corridors will be opened to allow people to exit the city.

The United States and its European allies have been demanding an extended ceasefire in the embattled city, but Russia has refused, saying it would only give rebels a chance to regroup.

Watch video01:02

Kerry: Aleppo largest humanitarian disaster since WWII

Rudskoi accused the West of turning a blind eye as rebels in Aleppo kill civilians.

“Given the situation, a unilateral ceasefire makes no sense, since Jaghat al-Nusra and groups allied to it will once again be given a breather, will regroup and restore their military capability,” he said, referring to a rebel group formerly allied with al Qaeda.

He insisted that Russia was working with other powers to try and create a sustainable peace agreement in Aleppo but said that would take time, and offered up the eight-hour ceasefire as a humanitarian gesture.

“We have taken a decision not to waste time and to introduce ‘humanitarian pauses’, mainly for the free passage of civilians, evacuation of the sick and wounded and withdrawal of fighters,” Rudskoi said at a press briefing. “During this period the Russian air force and Syrian government troops will halt air strikes and firing from any other types of weapons.”

EU slams Russian bombing

The European Union has slammed Russia for its relentless bombing assault on the city, which it says has caused “untold suffering,” and “may amount to war crimes.”

Watch video01:56

US, Britain mulling sanctions over Aleppo attacks

Despite the EU’s strong criticism of Russia, its 28 foreign ministers chose not to impose new sanctions against Russia during a Monday meeting in Luxembourg.

“At present, I don’t see how sanctions with a possible long-term effect are supposed to contribute to improving supplies to the civilian population,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. “So I am not the only one who, in this case, is rather skeptical about sanctions.”

The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, called the brief ceasefire “a positive step,” but added that UN agencies say that least 12 hours would be needed for such an operation to succeed.

“I believe that there will be a little bit of work to be done to find the common ground,” she said.

The EU imposed sanction on Syria some time ago, and they were extended in May, through June 2017. More than 200 people and dozens of entities, including companies, have had their assets frozen, and been barred from travelling.Seperately, the Washington and London are also discussing amping-up sanctions against Moscow.French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Russia would find a willing partner in the West when it comes to supporting counter-terrorism efforts. But he insisted that  “everything possible must be done to stop the bombing and allow humanitarian aid … to get to the population.”

Watch video01:39

Aleppo is a death trap

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Syria: US tells Russia it will end talks if bombing continues

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A Syrian man checks the damage following an air strike in the rebel-held Ansari district in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on September 23, 2016Image copyrightAFP
Image captionAleppo has come under heavy aerial bombardment since the end of a ceasefire a week ago

US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned his Russian counterpart that Washington will end Syria talks unless Moscow stops the bombing of Aleppo.

In a phone call with Sergei Lavrov, Mr Kerry said the US held Russia responsible for the use of incendiary and bunker bombs against the city.

The US state department said it was making preparations to suspend talks.

Aleppo has come under heavy aerial bombardment since the end of a ceasefire a week ago.

In response to Mr Kerry’s phone call, the Russian Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Evgeny Zagaynov, said the “trend” of Russia being blamed for the attacks in Syria must stop.

“It’s become a sort of unfortunate tradition that the majority of strikes on civilian facilities in Syria, without checking it … is blamed on Damascus or Russia,” he said.

But Moscow said on Wednesday they would send diplomats to Geneva to talk to the US about normalising the situation in Aleppo.

“On orders of the Russian president, we are ready to continue joint work with our American partners on the Syrian issue,” the defence ministry said in a statement.

Some 250,000 people are trapped in the rebel-held east of the city. They are under siege from Russian-backed Syrian government forces, which have launched a fierce campaign to recapture the area. The bombardment has been among the worst in the history of the five-year conflict.

The US has accused Russia of taking part in strikes on civilian targets and possibly committing war crimes.

The two nations have been locked in talks in an attempt to revive a fragile peace agreement, but the US said last week that Russia had openly lied to the UN about its intentions.

‘Living nightmare’

At least 96 children have been killed and 223 injured in eastern Aleppo since Friday, according to the UN children’s agency Unicef.

“The children of Aleppo are trapped in a living nightmare,” said Unicef deputy executive director Justin Forsyth on Wednesday. “There are no words left to describe the suffering they are experiencing.”

More than 170 people have been killed in east Aleppo since the beginning of the recent offensive, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.

Air strikes continued to hit Aleppo’s besieged eastern neighbourhoods on Tuesday night. Local medical workers said that two major hospitals were put out of service by the bombardment.

International medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) tweeted to say that both hospitals were out of service. Adham Sahloul, a spokesman for the US-based Syrian American Medical Society, which supports the two hospitals, said the two attacks took place at the same time, suggesting they were deliberately targeted.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon denounced the reported attacks on the two hospitals as “war crimes”.

Addressing crowds in St Peter’s Square in Rome on Wednesday, Pope Francis decried the bombing of Aleppo, saying those responsible for killing civilians would have to answer to God.

Media captionOne quiet moment tells of Aleppo’s despair: Quentin Somerville reports

Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and its commercial and industrial hub, has been divided roughly in two since 2012, with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces controlling the west and rebel factions the east.

In the past year, government troops have gradually broken the deadlock with the help of Iranian-backed militias and Russian air strikes. Earlier this month, they severed the rebels’ last route into the east and placed its 250,000 residents under siege.

Children in Aleppo have made up a large proportion of casualties from air strikes, according to aid groups. At least 100,000 children remain trapped in the eastern part of the city.

In the government-held west, 49 children were killed by rebel shelling in July alone, the New York Times reports, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On Tuesday, the US pledged to provide an extra $364m (£276m) in humanitarian aid to people affected by the Syrian war.

The World Health Organization (WHO) meanwhile called for the “immediate establishment of humanitarian routes” into Aleppo, where hospitals are running out of supplies and rubble-strewn streets are preventing ambulances from getting through.

Media captionAleppo: Key battleground in Syria’s civil war

Syria conflict: Obama ‘deeply concerned’ about Aleppo

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Media captionOne quiet moment tells of Aleppo’s despair: Quentin Somerville reports

US President Barack Obama has expressed “deep concern” about the situation in rebel-held parts of Aleppo, amid an assault by Syrian government forces.

Medics in the city are struggling to cope with the huge number of casualties caused by the most sustained and intense aerial bombardment in years.

Supplies of medicine and blood are running low, as a three-week siege by the army begins to have an impact.

An air strike on a pumping station has also left many areas without water.

“The planes are not leaving the skies at all,” Brita Hagi Hassan, president of the rebel city council, told Reuters news agency. “Life in the city is paralysed.”

“Everyone is cooped up in their homes, sitting in the basements. These missiles are even targeting the basements and shelters that we’d set up to protect people.”

Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and the country’s commercial and industrial hub, has been divided roughly in two since 2012, with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces controlling the west and rebel factions the east.

In the past year, troops have gradually broken the deadlock with the help of Iranian-backed militias and Russian air strikes. Earlier this month, they severed the rebels’ last route into the east and placed its 250,000 residents under siege.

Media captionAleppo: Key battleground in Syria’s civil war

A short-lived truce brokered by the US and Russia provided them with a brief respite, but its collapse last Monday led to the Syrian military launching an offensive to take full control of the city.

Since then, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the deaths of 248 people in rebel-held parts of Aleppo and its surrounding countryside.

Dozens of air strikes overnight killed 12 people, including three children, the UK-based monitoring group reported on Monday.

Aleppo and surrounding area map

Bebars Mishal, a rescue worker from the Syria Civil Defence, alleged that aircraft were “using all kinds of weapons – phosphorus and napalm and cluster bombs”.

The US, UK and France, which back the rebels, have also accused Syrian government and Russian forces of using bunker-busting bombs to destroy underground shelters, dropping incendiary weapons indiscriminately on civilian areas, and targeting war pumping stations.

Aref al-Aref, an intensive care medial worker, said hospitals in rebel-held Aleppo were “overwhelmed with wounded people” and that “things are starting to run out”.

Residents of rebel-held Tariq al-Bab district inspect water-filled crater that activists say was caused by bunker-busting bomb (23 September 2016)Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionActivists said they believed a bunker-busting bomb hit Aleppo’s Tariq al-Bab district on Friday

“We are unable to bring anything in… not equipment and not even medical staff. Some medical staff are in the countryside, unable to come in because of the siege,” he told Reuters.

Abd Arrahman Alomar, a paediatrician who works for the Syrian American Medical Society, warned there were only 30 doctors still inside eastern Aleppo and that there was only enough fuel to run hospital generators for 20 days.

The charity Save the Children meanwhile reported that one of the main hospitals still operating in the area was directly hit with a barrel bomb on Monday.

Near-empty market stalls in rebel-held district of Aleppo (19 September 2016)Image copyrightAFP
Image captionFood is becoming increasingly hard to find in Aleppo, three weeks into the government’s siege

Rescue efforts have also been hampered by the reported destruction of three Syria Civil Defence fire engines and two ambulances in air strikes in the past week.

Several charity kitchens were also closed on Monday because of the violence, while an AFP news agency correspondent said food prices had risen significantly.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that President Obama was “deeply concerned” by the “sickening” bloodshed in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.

“What we have seen from the Assad regime and the Russians is a concerted campaign to strike civilian targets, to bomb civilians into submission,” he said.

But a Syrian military source insisted it had no intention of letting up, telling AFP: “The air force will bomb any terrorist movements, this is an irreversible decision.”