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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    John Kerry

    The Obama administration is often criticized for its lack of action on Syria, but in some cases, doing nothing might be better than a cease-fire gone wrong.

    Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and an expert on Syria, warned that public opinion on the US is already so low inside Syria that a failed deal is dangerous to US credibility in the future.

    "It's something the American administration, the Obama administration, is not realizing," Hassan told Business Insider. "That every time they try something that is not a perfect solution or … not a good solution, half-solution, obviously flawed, the situation after that option fails is much worse than before it failed. So sometimes not trying is better than trying something bad, something flawed."

    The cease-fire was supposed to allow humanitarian aid to get through to besieged areas like Aleppo, a city where civilians have lived with daily bombardments and a dire lack of food and medical supplies, and eventually facilitate joint efforts between the US and Russia to target terrorists in Syria.

    But the Syrian regime reportedly blocked most aid from reaching rebel-held areas and then declined to extend the seven-day deal.

    The failure of the cease-fire likely ended up helping a militant group that was until recently affiliated with Al Qaeda and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, an authoritarian ruler whom the US has been urging to leave power to bring peace to Syria.

    "Jabhat Fatah al-Sham gained some street credibility," Hassan said.

    The group was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, and it was Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria. Because of its clear terrorist ties, it was a prime target of US airstrikes. The group now likely hopes that its recent rebranding will make it more palatable to Syrians and Westerners alike.

    And the failed cease-fire plays into its narrative that the US isn't really trying to help Syrians. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is already one of the most powerful rebel groups fighting the Assad regime, so the more US measures to aid the moderate opposition fall short, the more appeal well-equipped extremist groups have.

    People inspect damage after an airstrike on the rebel held Urm al-Kubra town, western Aleppo city, Syria September 20, 2016. 
REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    Hassan predicted Jabhat Fatah al-Sham's next narrative: "They could say now, 'look, the Americans are not interested in anything. We tried. We dropped the name of Al Qaeda from our public discourse. We said to the Americans time and again we're not interested in any foreign attacks in the West. We are committed to a Syrian cause. We said all these things. And yet, the Americans are desperate to work with the regime against us directly or indirectly.'"

    Syria has been mired in a vicious civil war for more than five years. The US has supported the moderate opposition, whose primary goal is to oust Assad, but there are other players on the battlefield as well. Russia got involved last year to support its ally, Assad, and Islamist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda have also fought for territorial control in the hopes of establishing an Islamic emirate in Syria.

    The Obama administration has declined to push too hard to force Assad from power, and that lack of action together with failed cease-fires make Syrians suspicious of US motives. And the fact that the US has been negotiating the deals with Russia doesn't help, considering that Russia has made its motives in the country clear.

    "You just need to look at the solidarity of voices by various opposition figures, individuals on social media, even journalists who used to be critical of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham or Jabhat al-Nusra are now openly saying, 'look, the Americans are really working with the Russians. They're not working with us. They're not our friends. They're our enemies, in the same way that Russia is," Hassan added.

    Hassan said this view has become mainstream in Syria.

    "I think more than ever before in the conflict, the US is seen as desperate to help the regime somehow," Hassan went on.

    Syrians "say the regime is weak and the Russians and Iranians have failed to prop up the regime enough, and now the Americans are trying to target the groups that are the most powerful groups," Hassan noted, referring to the rebel groups like Jabhat Fatah al-Sham that are not included in cease-fire deals because of their terrorist ties.

    "People inside, they believe in this conspiracy theory. And it shouldn't be shunned, disregarded, overlooked. Perception matters and the perception today is that the US is not working to help the Syrian opposition. It's indirectly helping the regime by design or by coincidence."

    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (C) joins Syrian army soldiers for Iftar in the farms of Marj al-Sultan village, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on June 26, 2016.   SANA/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

    Assad himself has openly encouraged views like this.

    He said in an interview with the Associated Press this week: "Whatever the American officials said about the conflicts in Syria in general has no credibility. Whatever they say, it's just lies and, let's say, bubbles, has no foundation on the ground."

    Hassan said the US needs to stands its ground with these deals and cancel them if there are violations. This week, Secretary of State John Kerry said he still wanted to restore the cease-fire despite Russian violations.

    "If you agree with the Russians on something, you either say that, 'it's not working because the Russians and the regime have violated this,' or you demand compliance, not try to justify and sound desperate, try to give the Russians more time and say, 'how about until Monday to make sure aid is delivered in Syria,'" Hassan said.

    He continued: "I think the best way now with Americans making the situation much worse by the day … is to just really pull back quietly, wait until they reach something, come up with a new strategy to deal with the situation. It looks really bad in the region, inside Syria and outside. You're just losing faith basically."

    Since the cease-fire fell apart, rebel-held areas have faced massive bombardments and a UN convoy was hit while trying to deliver aid to civilians.

    Robert Ford, a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute who was a US ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, told Business Insider last week that deals brokered with the help of Russia are unlikely to work.

    "The Russians have consistently shielded the Syrian government from the repercussions of its renewed use of chemical weapons, war crimes such as indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, and blocking humanitarian aid access," Ford said. "They have repeatedly lied to try to absolve the Syrian government if its crimes."

    He continued: "The Americans should be very wary of any thought that the possibility of new US-Russian military coordination in Syria will lead to any change in Russian goals or behavior. There is certainly no sign that Russia is prepared to push really hard on the Syrian government to make some big compromises at a political negotiation the Obama administration hopes might solve the Syrian crisis."

    SEE ALSO: The Syrian cease-fire could have a victor the US didn't intend

    Join the conversation about this story »

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    Boris Johnson

    British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said Russia's actions in Syria may amount to war crimes if the country was involved in an airstrike on a humanitarian aid convoy near Aleppo. 

    Johnson made the statement while appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr show on Sunday.

    The attack last Monday left 20 people dead and also destroyed a warehouse, and while the US believes Russia is behind the attack, no one has claimed responsibility.

    Russia fired back at the accusations and blamed rebel shelling or a US drone strike.

    Boris Johnson appeared to suggest the incident may have been deliberate. "Putin’s regime is not just handing Assad the revolver," the foreign secretary told Marr. "He is in some instances firing the revolver. The Russians themselves are actually engaged."

    "We should be looking at whether or not that targeting is done in the knowledge that those are wholly innocent civilian targets. That is a war crime."

    The attack followed the collapse of a cease-fire brokered by the US and Russia, and prompted the UN to suspend all aid convoys to Syria.

    Johnson also alarmingly admitted that the west has failed to orchestrate a coherent "response to what is going on" in the country where — according to official UN estimates— more than 400,000 have died since the outbreak of a major civil war in 2011.

    Speaking to Marr, he said: "If you say to me the west is too impotent, I would have to agree. I would have to agree that, since we took those decisions in 2013 when those red lines were crossed, we have not really had a viable military response, or any kinetic response to what is going on."

    He also stressed the UK is "in the lead" on tightening sanctions against Russia but claimed that the one thing that Russians respond to is being publicly shamed.

    "The idea they are in the dock of the court of international opinion" is one of their fears he said. "They are guilty of making the war far more protracted and far more hideous."

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    U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power

    The United States on Sunday called Russia's action in Syria "barbarism," not counter-terrorism, while Moscow's UN envoy said ending the war "is almost an impossible task now" as Syrian government forces, backed by Moscow, bombed the city of Aleppo.

    The United Nations Security Council met on Sunday at the request of the United States, Britain and France to discuss the escalation of fighting in Aleppo following the announcement on Thursday of an offensive by the Syrian army to retake the city.

    "What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism," US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told the 15-member council.

    "Instead of pursuing peace, Russia and Assad make war. Instead of helping get life-saving aid to civilians, Russia and Assad are bombing the humanitarian convoys, hospitals and first responders who are trying desperately to keep people alive," Power said.

    People inspect a damaged site after airstrikes on the rebel held Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 23, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    A Sept. 9 ceasefire deal between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov aimed at putting Syria's peace process back on track effectively collapsed on Monday when an aid convoy was bombed.

    "In Syria hundreds of armed groups are being armed, the territory of the country is being bombed indiscriminately and bringing a peace is almost an impossible task now because of this," Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the council.

    Britain's UN ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, said on Sunday the US and Russian bid to bring peace to Syria "is very, very near the end of its life and yes the Security Council needs to be ready to fulfill our responsibilities."

    "The regime and Russia have instead plunged to new depths and unleashed a new hell on Aleppo," Rycroft told the council. "Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes."

    syria mapHowever, Russia is one of five veto-powers on the council, along with the United States, France, Britain and China. Russia and China have protected Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government by blocking several attempts at council action.

    "It is time to say who is carrying out those air strikes and who is killing civilians," Power said. "Russia holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This is a privilege and it is a responsibility. Yet in Syria and in Aleppo, Russia is abusing this historic privilege."

    As Syria's UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari began addressing the council, Power, Rycroft and French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre walked out of the chamber, diplomats said.

    "Any political solution can only be successful by providing the requisite conditions through intensified efforts to fight terrorism," Ja'afari told the council. "The real war on terrorism has never started yet. The advent of Syrian victory is imminent."

    Russian airstrike syria bomber

    UN Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura briefed the council meeting on Sunday. He appealed to the council to come up with a way to enforce a cessation of hostilities in Syria.

    "I am still convinced that we can turn the course of events. We have proven this more than once before," he said, adding that he would not quit trying to bring peace in Syria.

    "Any sign of me resigning would be a signal that the international community is abandoning the Syrians, and we will not abandon the Syrians, and neither will you," he said.

    SEE ALSO: 'Sickening' airstrike on UN aid trucks in Syria may be the last straw in US-Russia relations

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    military drones

    BEIRUT – A top Iranian military official has said that his country’s unmanned aerial vehicles are conducting airstrikes in Syria, months after Iranian TV aired a video appearing to show a combat drone being tested in the war-torn country.

    Major General Mohammad Bagheri, the chief-of-staff of Iran’s armed forces, claimed in a speech Sunday that his country has developed UAVs capable of pinpoint strikes that can hit a target in an area as small as one square meter.

    “These UAVs are being used to hit terrorist targets in Syria and Iraq,” he added during a ceremony marking the start of the academic year at Iran’s Supreme National Defense University.

    In late 2015, Iran’s SimaNews broadcasted a video “claiming to have been filmed in an Iranian combat drone being tested in Syria,” according to a report prepared by France 24’s Observers program.

    The London-based arms specialist magazine Jane's Defense Weekly analyzed the footage and concluded that it shows Shahed-129 UAVs firing Sadid-1 air-to-surface rockets, including one strike outside Aleppo in October 2015.

    The Shahed-129 was publicly unveiled by Iran in September 2012 and went into mass production a year later.

    Jane’s notes that the drone was spotted in Syria in 2014 after pictures emerged showing it in operations around Damascus.

    “At that time, the UAV was believed to be conducting surveillance mission and was not seen to be armed,” the defense publication’s report added.

    Iran Yasir drone

    Iran’s public admission that it is conducting drone strikes comes a month after its most powerful regional proxy, Hezbollah, released a first-of-its-kind video that appears to show the group bombing Syrian rebels in the village of Khalsa, southwest of Aleppo, from the air using a pilotless drone.

    The footage shows three separate bombings; one of “a [rebel] leader’s base,” the second of a pick-up truck purportedly belonging to “gunmen,” the third of a tent-like structure ostensibly housing “a gathering of gunmen.” In the third clip, two canisters filled with ball bearings are seen falling beneath the camera, prompting a figure on the arid ground below to start running before two small clouds of dust erupt upon the canister's impact.

    The use of drones by Hezbollah became more prevalent after the group’s public entry into the conflict in Syria in 2013.

    Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV regularly aired footage taken from UAVs during offensives in Syria’s Qalamoun region and the campaign in Lebanon’s mountainous northeastern border region in 2015.

    In one such instance, Al-Manar aired drone footage of party fighters ambushing several Al-Nusra Front militants on the outskirts of the Lebanese border town of Arsal.

    However, the August 9 UAV footage from Aleppo was the first from that region of Syria, as well as the first to demonstrate the party’s offensive drone capabilities.

    SEE ALSO: Iranian conservatives: Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should stay out of next year's election

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    Children stand in front of the bullet-riddled facade of a building in the rebel-held Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria September 25, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

    Medical supplies were running out in the besieged rebel-held sector of Aleppo, with victims pouring into barely functioning hospitals as an all-out Russian-backed assault entered its fourth day and Moscow ignored Western pleas to stop.

    The Syrian government offensive to recapture all of Aleppo, with Russian air support and Iranian support on the ground, has been accompanied by bombing that residents describe as unprecedented in its ferocity.

    Some 250,000 civilians remain trapped in the besieged, opposition-held sector of Syria's biggest city. Hundreds of people, including dozens of children, have been reported killed since Thursday night by an onslaught that has included massive bunker-busting bombs that bring down whole buildings on people huddled inside.

    The United States has called Russia's actions in support of President Bashar al-Assad "barbarism". Moscow denies it is killing civilians said such rhetoric from the west could damage the chances of solving the conflict.

    "Aleppo city's hospitals are overwhelmed with wounded people ... Things are starting to run out," said Aref al-Aref, an intensive care medical worker, who spoke from Aleppo.

    "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 said.

    Western countries say Russia may be guilty of war crimes for targeting medics and aid supplies. Moscow and Damascus say they are bombing only militants. Video from Aleppo has repeatedly shown small children being dug out of the rubble of collapsed buildings.

    Bebars Mishal, a civil defense worker in rebel-held Aleppo, said overnight bombardment continued until 6 a.m. (0300 GMT).

    "It's the same situation. Especially at night, the bombardment intensifies, it becomes more violent, using all kinds of weapons, phosphorous and napalm and cluster bombs," Mishal told Reuters.

    "Now, there's just the helicopter, and God only knows where it will bomb. God knows which building will collapse," he said. "Everybody is scared...unable to go out. They don't know what to do, or where to go."

    Russia and Assad appear to have abandoned diplomacy last week, betting instead on delivering a decisive military blow against the president's enemies on the battlefield.

    Capturing rebel districts of Aleppo would mark the biggest victory of the civil war for Assad, crushing the revolt in its last major urban stronghold.

    Syrian government forces helped by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias have gradually been tightening their grip on eastern Aleppo this year. They launched the all-out assault on the city last week after abandoning a ceasefire announced earlier this month by Moscow and Washington.

    No RespiteDamaged aid trucks are pictured after an airstrike on the rebel held Urm al-Kubra town, western Aleppo city, Syria September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    Indicating there would be no respite soon, the Syrian army issued a statement reiterating its call for civilians to steer clear of rebel positions and bases in eastern Aleppo.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring body, says at least 237 people, including at least 38 children, have been killed in Aleppo and nearby countryside since the army declared the end of the ceasefire a week ago. Civil defense workers in opposition territory put the death toll at 400.

    The rebel-held sector of Aleppo is completely encircled, making it impossible to receive supplies. The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) charity group said this week in a statement that only 30 doctors remain inside.

    "We have patients who will die in the dozens if they are not evacuated," Osama Abo Ezz, a general surgeon and Aleppo coordinator for SAMS, told Reuters, speaking from an area near Aleppo.

    "The medical staff is insufficient and completely exhausted. The blood bank refrigerators are completely empty. Vital medicines have almost run out. The ICU beds are insufficient and always full. The CT scanner is out of order," he said.

    A Syrian military source told Reuters on Saturday that weapons were being used that could destroy rebel tunnels and bunkers, dug in during years of opposition control.

    A water pumping station serving eastern Aleppo has also been destroyed. A spokesman for the World Health Organization said a technical mission was visiting the station to assess damage.

    "We don’t know how long it will take to restore the functionality," said the spokesman, Tarik Jasarevic.

    Rescue efforts during the bombing have been hampered because damage has made roads impassable and because civil defense centers and rescue equipment have themselves been destroyed in raids. 

    Diplomacy

    Lavrov Kerry

    Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the civil war between Assad's government and insurgents, and 11 million driven from their homes. Much of east of the country is now in the hands of Islamic State fighters, the enemies of all other sides.

    Since Russia joined the war a year ago to support Assad's government, the administration of President Barack Obama has been engaged in intensive diplomacy with Moscow, trying to end the war between the government and most insurgent groups and turn the focus towards the common fight against Islamic State.

    But the latest escalation has left U.S. Syria policy in tatters, all but destroying any hope of a breakthrough before Obama leaves office next year.

    The collapse of diplomacy has led to dramatic stand-offs at the United Nations, where the United States called Russia's actions in Syria "barbarism" on Sunday. Moscow's U.N. envoy said ending the war "is almost an impossible task now".

    The Kremlin said on Monday tough Western condemnation might hinder any resolution to the crisis. Moscow saw "absolutely no prospect" for holding a summit on Syria, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

    Moscow blames Washington for the failure of the ceasefire, arguing that the United States failed to prevent rebels from using the truce to regroup.

    A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel held Russia responsible for the violence in Aleppo, saying the Syrian regime's onslaught on civilians would not be possible without military backing from the Kremlin.

    "Russia must immediately end the indiscriminate bombardments of civilian areas by the Syrian government," Steffen Seibert said.

    The Syrian government meanwhile pressed its efforts to pacify rebellious areas on its own terms under local agreements with besieged fighters. In Homs, another group of rebels began to be evacuated from their last foothold in the city on Monday, state news agency SANA said.

    The Observatory said around 100 fighters were in the group scheduled to leave al-Waer neighborhood for the northern Homs countryside.

     

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    A man walks on the rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the rebel held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 25, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    The US and Russia exchanged diplomatic jabs on Sunday night and into Monday over the Russia-backed Syrian government's latest scorched-earth offensive on rebel holdouts in the country's largest city.

    "What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counterterrorism, it is barbarism," Samantha Power, US ambassador to the United Nations, told member nations at a UN Security Council meeting on Sunday.

    "Instead of pursuing peace, Russia and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad make war. Instead of helping get life-saving aid to civilians, Russia and Assad are bombing the humanitarian convoys, hospitals, and first responders who are trying desperately to keep people alive."

    Hundreds of people have died over the past week in the worst aerial bombardments of the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo since the war began in 2011. The bombings punctuated the collapse of a fragile cease-fire brokered between the US and Russia earlier this month.

    The UN's special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, noted on Sunday that the bombardments had reached a "remarkable new intensity — unprecedented in scale and type of bombing," and warned that a renewed takeover battle for rebel-held eastern Aleppo could mean "a slow, grinding, street-by-street fight over the course of months if not years."

    The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets — local rescue teams that help dig people out of the rubble of airstrikes — reported "horrific indiscriminate bombardment" and "nonstop airstrikes" on Saturday morning.

    aleppo

    The group said on Twitter that its "teams are under tremendous pressure."

    The rescue service also says it has been targeted by Syrian and Russian warplanes continuously — most notably last week, when it says it was attacked while trying to help UN aid convoys that had been bombarded while trying to deliver supplies across the Turkish-Syrian border.

    White Helmets buildings in Aleppo were also deliberately targeted in multiple airstrikes on Friday, Abdul Rahman al-Hassani, the chief liaison officer for the White Helmets, based in Aleppo, told The Daily Beast.

    Britain's ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, walked out of the Security Council meeting on Sunday as Syria's envoy to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, began to speak. The US and France also walked out.

    "It is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes," Rycroft said.

    Britain's newly appointed foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, joined in the chorus of international condemnation shortly afterward, telling the BBC's "The Andrew Marr Show" that Russia was "guilty of protracting" the war in Syria and of "making it far more hideous."

    More than just 'sound and fury'

    Echoing the regime, Russia once again defended itself by insisting the airstrikes were targeting Syria's militants.

    "In Syria, hundreds of armed groups are being armed, the territory of the country is being bombed indiscriminately, and bringing a peace is almost an impossible task now because of this," Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, told the council.

    The Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, called the US and UK envoys' language "unacceptable."

    "We note that the tone and rhetoric used by official representatives from the UK and US is generally unacceptable and it can seriously damage the settlement process and our bilateral relations," he told reporters on Monday.

    Jeff White, a military expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the jabs are, at this point, more than just "sound and fury."

    Europe analyst Alex Kokcharov, a risk analyst with IHS, said the language was "probably the strongest we've heard since the Cold War ended."

    "This is significant — both the fact that the UN Security Council met on a weekend and also that they have used words such as war crimes,"Kokcharov told NBC News.

    Vladimir Putin Barack Obama

    White noted that while the Obama administration is "not going to make a major policy change at this point, it may be willing to increase clandestine support to the rebels somewhat."

    Any concerted effort by the administration to end the bombardments remains elusive, however. Obama barely mentioned the war in his final address to the UN General Assembly last Tuesday, reiterating his long-held belief that "there is no ultimate military victory to be won." And he has resisted calls from both sides of the aisle to pass sanctions on the Assad regime and its supporters.

    The verbal crossfire at the UN circumscribes how much diplomatic progress US Secretary of State John Kerry will be able to make with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on halting the indiscriminate bombing campaign.

    "Hard to see how this can go forward now with any credibility," White said.

    A dramatic setback

    The new scorched-earth campaign is a dramatic setback for the opposition in Aleppo, which early in August was on the verge of breaking a monthlong government siege on the city in "one of the largest coordinated rebel campaigns of the war to date."

    The cease-fire put a temporary end to the heavy fighting — but it also appears to have swung the pendulum back in the regime's favor.

    Hadi Alabdallah, a Syrian journalist on the Aleppo front lines, told Business Insider at the time that "the regime-allied forces deteriorated very quickly" in the face of the rebel assault.

    "It was very surprising, and much faster than anyone had expected," he said. "Officers from those [pro-regime] militias fled and left their soldiers out on the field, so they started to flee as well. That's why the artillery academy was so easy to overrun— it was captured within two hours."

    Free Syrian Army fighters launch a Grad rocket from Halfaya town in Hama province, towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad stationed in Zein al-Abidin mountain, Syria September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    Less than three weeks into the cease-fire, however, the regime unleashed its most ferocious assault on the city to date — and with US-Russian relations rapidly deteriorating, a negotiated pause in the bombardments appears unlikely.

    "The Assad regime and with direct participation of its ally Russia and Iranian militias has escalated its criminal and vicious attack on our people in Aleppo employing a scorched earth policy to destroy the city and uproot its people," read a statement released on Sunday and signed by 30 mainstream rebel groups.

    One hundred people died in the bombings on Friday alone, according to James Le Mesurier, head of Mayday Rescue, which trains Syrian rescue workers. Nearly 2 million people in both the rebel-held and government-held areas of Aleppo were left without water.

    It was "the worst day that we've had for a very long time," Le Mesurier told The New York Times' Ben Hubbard. "They are calling it Dresden-esque."

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    Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad flash victory signs as they stand at a military complex, after they recaptured areas in southwestern Aleppo on Sunday that rebels had seized last month, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on September 5, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government forces and their allies attacked the opposition-held sector of Aleppo on several fronts on Tuesday, the biggest ground assault yet in a massive new military campaign that has destroyed a US-backed ceasefire.

    The United States says the assault on Aleppo is proof that President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and regional allies have abandoned an international peace process to pursue victory on the battlefield after nearly six years of civil war.

    Washington, which agreed a ceasefire with Russia this month that collapsed after a week, says Moscow and Damascus are guilty of "barbarism" and war crimes for targeting civilians, health workers and aid deliveries in air strikes.

    More than 250,000 civilians are believed to be trapped inside the besieged rebel-held sector of Aleppo, where intensive bombing over the past week has killed hundreds of people, many trapped under buildings brought down by bunker-busting bombs.

    Only about 30 doctors are left inside, coping with hundreds of wounded each day who are being treated on the floors of hospitals that are bereft of supplies.

    The World Health Organization called for the "immediate establishment of humanitarian routes to evacuate sick and wounded" from the besieged eastern part of the city.

    Tuesday's assault saw pro-government forces, which include the Syrian army and allied militia from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, attempt to attack Aleppo's Old City near its historic citadel, as well as around several of the city's major access points.

    Troops advanced from the countryside to the north and south, rebels said, leading to intense clashes. The military and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitoring group, said the army had made some gains, but this was disputed by rebels who said they had held them off.

    syria army

    Ferocious Confrontation

    Senior combatants on both sides said pro-government forces were massing in several parts of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city before the war, now divided into a western zone held by the army and a smaller, besieged area held by rebels.

    The commander of an Iraqi Shi'ite militia fighting in support of Assad told Reuters a large force spearheaded by the army's elite "Nimr", or Tiger, forces had started to move in armored vehicles and tanks for an attack on rebel-held areas.

    Quelling the uprising in the city would give Assad his biggest victory yet of the war and deliver a powerful blow to his enemies.

    It is far from clear whether an all-out attempt to storm the rebel-held area is planned soon: that would require a massive assault by the army, backed by Lebanese and Iraqi Shi'ite militias, Iran's Revolutionary Guards and Russian air power.

    The government's strategy in other locations such as Damascus and Homs has been to use years of siege and bombardment to force eventual surrender, rather than attempting to storm of well-defended territory.

    However, Assad's allies now openly say they have abandoned the peace process and are betting instead on military victory.

    "There are no prospects for political solutions ... the final word is for the battlefield," the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah Shi'ite movement, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, was quoted in a Lebanese newspaper as saying on Tuesday.

    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Russia's RIA new agency, in Damascus, Syria in this handout file picture provided by SANA on March 30, 2016.

    The head of Iran's National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, was quoted on Tuesday as saying Aleppo's fate would be determined only "through a forceful confrontation".

    Aleppo residents said ferocious air attacks of previous nights had abated somewhat. The Observatory said at least 11 people were killed in air strikes on Tuesday in two Aleppo neighborhoods.

    State television reported that the army had retaken al-Farafra district in Aleppo's Old City and engineering units were clearing mines in the area.

    A senior rebel source said the army had taken some positions near that area, but had been forced to withdraw. Neither assertion could be independently confirmed. The army had also been repelled after heavy fighting in assaults on four other fronts, he said, describing it as the biggest wave of ground attacks since the offensive was announced last week.

    Zakaria Malahifji, a politburo member of the Fastaqim group which is active in Aleppo, said the army had assembled infantry and heavy vehicles in a military buildup in the city.

    "Until today, thank God, attempts to advance have been blocked," he added.

    The senior rebel official said pro-government forces were mobilizing near the rebel-held Sheikh Saeed district on the city's southern outskirts, near the location of the heaviest fighting this summer in Aleppo.

    "They are working to expand on any opening they create," said the official from an Aleppo-based rebel faction, citing reports from his fighters.

    (Reporting by Tom Perry, Laila Bassam, John Davison, Ellen Francis and the Dubai Newsroom; Editing by Peter Graff)

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    turkey border wall

    ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A concrete wall being built to stop illegal crossings along the length of Turkey's 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria will be finished by the end of February, an official at a Turkish state institution with knowledge of the project said on Wednesday.

    Ankara has long been under pressure from its NATO allies to seal off the border with Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria and is also concerned by the presence of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which controls most of its Syrian border.

    Construction on a border wall to combat smuggling and illegal migration started as early as 2014 even as Turkey maintained an open-border policy that has seen nearly 3 million Syrians seek refuge in the country.

    "Construction will be completed within five months," the official told Reuters, declining to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He said winter conditions would be a challenge to the timetable, however.

    Turkey last month launched an operation dubbed "Euphrates Shield" in alliance with Syrian rebels to drive Islamic State militants away from the border area and stop the YPG's advance.

    Turkey regards the YPG as closely tied to Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants fighting an insurgency in southeast Turkey and deems both as terrorist organizations.

    The United States, meanwhile, sees the YPG as an ally in its operations targeting Islamic State -- a source of tensions between Ankara and Washington.

    turkey border wall

    US-Mexico border

    A 200-km (125-mile) stretch of the wall has already been completed and state housing developer TOKI will build the rest, the official said. He likened the project to border walls in other countries, such as the one between parts of Mexico and the United States.

    The official declined to give an estimate for the cost of construction. But the mass circulation Hurriyet newspaper said that including a road for military patrols planned alongside it, the wall was expected to cost 2 billion lira ($672 million).

    Made up of seven-tonne portable blocks topped with razor wire, the wall will be three meters (10 feet) high and two meters (6.5 feet) wide. The official said private companies would be hired once construction tenders were completed.

    Hurriyet cited the head of TOKI as saying that 200-250 concrete blocks were currently being produced daily at five work sites, and that the latest construction work had begun around 20 days ago.

    New watchtowers on roads patrolled by armored vehicles have already been erected along the border this year as part of increased security measures.

    (Reporting by Orhan Coskun; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by David Dolan and Sonya Hepinstall)

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    Free Syrian Army fighters launch a Grad rocket from Halfaya town in Hama province, towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad stationed in Zein al-Abidin mountain, Syria September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

    BEIRUT (Reuters) - Foreign states have given Syrian rebels surface-to-surface Grad rockets of a type not previously supplied to them in response to a major Russian-backed offensive in Aleppo, arebel commander told Reuters on Wednesday.

    The Grad rockets with a range of 22 km and 40 km have been supplied in "excellent quantities" and will be used on battlefronts in Aleppo, Hama and the coastal region, rebel commander Colonel Fares al-Bayoush said.

    While Grad missiles have previously been supplied to rebels, Bayoush said it was the first time this particular type had been delivered. Each salvo contains 40 rockets, he said, without giving further details. The rebels had previous stocks of the rocket captured from army stores, he added.

    Bayoush added that there was as yet no sign of the rebels being supplied with anti-aircraft missiles they have demanded.

    A video posted on YouTube on Monday showed Free Syrian Army rebels firing Grad missiles at government positions near Aleppo. Bayoush confirmed the weapons being fired in the video were newly supplied.

    Rebel groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner have received military aid from states opposed to President Bashar al-Assad via a U.S.-backed coordination center in Turkey.

    The rebellion's foreign backers have previously supplied Russian-made Grad rockets to therebels: rockets with a 20 km (12 mile) ranges were delivered earlier this year in response to an earlier offensive in Aleppo, rebels told Reuters at the time.

    (Reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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    Grad Rocket

    Foreign states have given Syrian rebels surface-to-surface Grad rockets of a type not previously supplied to them in response to a major Russian-backed offensive in Aleppo, a rebel commander told Reuters on Wednesday.

    The Grad rockets with a range of 22 km and 40 km have been supplied in "excellent quantities" and will be used on battlefronts in Aleppo, Hama and the coastal region, rebel commander Colonel Fares al-Bayoush said.

    While Grad missiles have previously been supplied to rebels, Bayoush said it was the first time this particular type had been delivered. Each salvo contains 40 rockets, he said, without giving further details. The rebels had previous stocks of the rocket captured from army stores, he added.

    Bayoush added that there was as yet no sign of the rebels being supplied with anti-aircraft missiles they have demanded.

    A video posted on YouTube on Monday showed Free Syrian Army rebels firing Grad missiles at government positions near Aleppo. Bayoush confirmed the weapons being fired in the video were newly supplied.

    Rebel groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner have received military aid from states opposed to President Bashar al-Assad via a U.S.-backed coordination center in Turkey.

    The rebellion's foreign backers have previously supplied Russian-made Grad rockets to the rebels: rockets with a 20 km (12 mile) ranges were delivered earlier this year in response to an earlier offensive in Aleppo, rebels told Reuters at the time.

     

    (Reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

    SEE ALSO: Turkey is getting close to finishing its border wall with Syria

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    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) look toward one another during a news conference following their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland where they discussed the crisis in Syria September 9, 2016.

    US Secretary of State John Kerry threatened to suspend negotiations with Russia over Syria unless the Russian and Syrian aerial bombardment of the city of Aleppo ends, The Associated Press reported Wednesday.

    Kerry told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in a phone call that the US was preparing to "suspend US-Russia bilateral engagement on Syria ... unless Russia takes immediate steps to end the assault on Aleppo" and restore a cease-fire.

    The State Department issued a statement about the call, saying "the secretary made clear the United States and its partners hold Russia responsible for this situation, including the use of incendiary and bunker buster bombs in an urban environment, a drastic escalation that puts civilians at great risk."

    Hundreds of people have died over the past week in the worst bombings on the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo since the war began in 2011.

    Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina issued a statement that appeared to mock Kerry's attempts to intimidate Russia:

    "Finally, a real power move in American diplomacy. Secretary of State John ‘Not Delusional’ Kerry has made the one threat the Russians feared most — the suspension of U.S.-Russia bilateral talks about Syria. No more lakeside tête-à-têtes at five-star hotels in Geneva. No more joint press conferences in Moscow. We can only imagine that having heard the news, Vladimir Putin has called off his bear hunt and is rushing back to the Kremlin to call off Russian airstrikes on hospitals, schools, and humanitarian aid convoys around Aleppo."

    "After all, butchering the Syrian people to save the Assad regime is an important Russian goal," the statement continued. "But not if it comes at the unthinkable price of dialogue with Secretary Kerry.”

    The bombings, which have also targeted rescue services in the city, punctuated the collapse of a fragile cease-fire brokered between the US and Russia earlier this month.

    The cease-fire was part of a deal between the US and Russia to coordinate their military operations in Syria and share intelligence about terrorist positions. That deal has been jeopardized by the latest scorched-earth offensive on Aleppo, however, with American and Russian diplomats exchanging diplomatic jabs Sunday night and into Monday.

    "What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counterterrorism — it is barbarism," Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, told member nations at a UN Security Council meeting on Sunday.

    Even so, most analysts who have been monitoring the conflict agree that, absent deliberate US action, only Russia can end the war.

    "The end of the war in Syria will not be just, and it's unlikely to be peaceful,"said Emma Beals, an independent journalist and specialist on Syria. "But it will be the Russians who end the war — at this stage, they are the only ones who can."

    The problem, however, is that they have no incentive to do so.

    'A bloody chess game'

    Kerry's willingness to walk away from the partnership is unlikely to sway Russia's determination to wipe out any and all opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country's most important battleground — especially since Washington has no known plans of intervening in the conflict directly or significantly ramping up its support for moderate rebels.

    "Ambassador Power's rhetoric is entirely hollow," Russian affairs expert Mark Kramer, the program director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard, told Business Insider earlier this week. "The only thing that can change Russia's behavior now, in Syria and elsewhere, is forceful action. Rightly or wrongly, the Obama administration has no intention of taking any action vis-a-vis Syria, and thus Power's accusations amount to mere huffing and puffing."

    Damaged Red Cross and Red Crescent medical supplies lie inside a warehouse after an airstrike on the rebel held Urm al-Kubra town, western Aleppo city, Syria September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar AbdullahUlrich Speck, an independent foreign-policy analyst, presented a similar assessment on Wednesday of the fundamental dilemma facing Washington's efforts to negotiate with Moscow: Russia has no incentive to end the war, and the US has no leverage.

    "Russia has no incentive to end the war in Syria as long as the rebels fail to win massive Western support," Speck wrote for Carnegie on Wednesday. "The military alliance between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Russia has managed to make constant progress and appears set to regain control over the whole of Syria."

    In fact, walking away from the deal at this point may serve as a signal to Russia that the US is washing its hands of the conflict, decisively forfeiting the country to Moscow as a Russian sphere of influence.

    "The absence of the United States from the field leaves most of the shots available to the Kremlin," Gianni Riotta of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote for Carnegie on Wednesday.

    "The shouting match at the UN Security Council on September 25 between the US and Russian ambassadors matched the worst episodes of the Cold War, with the violent exchange leaving other diplomats aghast," Riotta continued. "So do not expect Putin to stop bombing Aleppo — civilians or rebels. He is playing a bloody chess game, and Syria is just a pawn."

    'No intention of pressuring Assad'

    Many experts doubted how effective the joint plan would be to begin with, given the hugely disparate objectives Russia and the US have for the country and the region.

    "It is obvious by now that US-Russian cooperation over Syria is impractical because the objectives of the two sides are fundamentally divergent," Kramer of Harvard said. "Temporary cease-fires have proved to be mostly illusory because Russia has no intention of pressuring Assad to make concessions."

    "Russian officials are not going to change what they are doing simply because the United States decries it," Kramer added. "In the 1990s, the Russian government cared what Western governments thought, but that era is long over."

    Dmitry Peskov

    Indeed, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the language used at the UN Security Council meeting by the US "unacceptable." At the meeting itself, Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, doubled down on an oft-repeated talking point: Russian airstrikes are targeting only terrorists.

    Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which was known as Jabhat al-Nusra before it formally severed ties with Al Qaeda, has a presence in the city. It was an instrumental part of the military alliance of several rebel brigades known as Jaysh al Fateh that helped the mainstream Free Syrian Army regain control over a significant portion of Aleppo early last month.

    But the Russian and Syrian bombs are being dropped indiscriminately on the opposition-controlled east, where more than 250,000 civilians are under siege.

    Even if Russia decided it wanted to end the war — which is unlikely, given the leverage it offers Moscow over Washington — the consequences would be devastating at best.

    "If Russia decided to end the conflict, it would probably do so in the way it assaulted Grozny in 1999-2000," Marc Pierini of Carnegie Europe wrote on Wednesday.

    That is, "by razing anything that still stands and by mercilessly targeting fighters, civilians, humanitarian workers, hospitals, and ambulances alike — as it does on a daily basis in Aleppo now."

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    Children play along a street in the rebel-held al-Sheikh Said neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 1, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    Government shelling and airstrikes in Syria's Aleppo landed near a bread distribution center and two hospitals Wednesday, killing seven people and putting at least one of the medical facilities completely out of service, activists and medics said.

    U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon described the conditions in eastern, rebel-held Aleppo as worse than a "slaughterhouse" at a Security Council meeting.

    "Those using ever more destructive weapons know exactly what they are doing — they know they are committing war crimes," Ban said, without naming any countries. Syria's government is waging a major offensive in Aleppo and both Syria and Russia are carrying out airstrikes on the city.

    Doctors Without Borders, which supported both of the hospitals damaged Wednesday, said a "brutal and relentless onslaught from air and land" has left eastern Aleppo with just seven surgical doctors to treat a population of some 250,000.

    The head of the organization, also known by its French acronym MSF, said people are being taken off life support because of a "multitude" of wounded, and doctors in eastern Aleppo are left to "await their own deaths."

    Joanna Liu called the war "a race to the bottom," and called on the U.N. Security Council to "enact an absolute prohibition of attacks on medical facilities."

    Aref al-Aref, a nurse at M2, one of the hospitals, said government shelling hit the bread distribution center near the city center before dawn. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Aleppo Media Center said six people were killed outside the center.

    Russian airstrike syria bomber

    As the wounded were brought into the hospital, one of five shells fired in a sequence fell at the emergency entrance, killing a person who was accompanying a wounded patient, al-Aref said.

    He said the shelling damaged the hospital and put parts of it out of service. He said three hospital staff members were wounded. Later, an airstrike hit near the hospital without wounding anyone, he said.

    In another attack, an airstrike hit near a hospital in the northern part of the rebel-held area, cutting off electricity and water supplies. Mohammed Abu Rajab, head of the M10 hospital, the largest of eight hospitals in eastern Aleppo, said the intensive care unit was most affected, as the generators and the oxygen supplies were knocked out.

    Abu Rajab said the ICU patients had to be moved to another facility. Water supplies and the hospital's fuel tanks were also hit, he said.

    The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said the neighborhood where M10 hospital is located has been targeted by warplanes, helicopters and artillery since early Wednesday.

    Syriamap syria map aleppo sept 2016

    "It hit when we were asleep. No one has slept since and we are exhausted," said Abu Rajab. He said authorities "know this facility and where it is very well." No one was wounded in the attack, he said.

    Adham Sahloul of the US-based Syrian American Medical Society, which supports the two hospitals, said the attacks on the medical facilities took place at the same time, suggesting they were deliberately targeted. He said that while the two hospitals were not directly hit, the attacks caused structural damage to both.

    Sahloul said that one child who was in an ambulance died because he was not able to receive treatment during the chaos. Abu Rajab, of the M10 hospital, said two people had been killed because they could not receive treatment after the hospitals were attacked, but did not provide further details.

    Doctors Without Borders said the two hospitals have been forced to halt all activities, leaving just two hospitals with the ability to carry out surgery in a city experiencing "a brutal and relentless onslaught from air and land."

    It said in a statement that the strikes on the hospitals caused the deaths of at least two patients and wounded two medics.

    aleppo rubble assad regime air strike

    The Syrian government and its ally Russia have been accused of targeting medical facilities in rebel-held areas. The US-based Physicians for Human Rights has recorded 382 attacks on medical facilities and hospitals throughout Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011. Of those, 293 were carried out by government forces and 16 were conducted by Russian warplanes, it said.

    Hospitals in eastern Aleppo have been overwhelmed with casualties since the start of a government offensive last week after the collapse of a cease-fire. MSF, which supports all the hospitals in eastern Aleppo, said doctors have reported receiving more than 270 bodies and 800 wounded patients since last Wednesday.

    The U.N. children's agency said Wednesday that at least 96 children have been killed and more than 220 wounded in eastern Aleppo over the last five days.

    UNICEF deputy executive director Justin Forsyth said the military onslaught has left children "trapped in a living nightmare," adding that the shock and suffering among children "is definitely the worst we have seen."

    SEE ALSO: Kerry issues an ultimatum

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    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) look toward one another during a news conference following their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland where they discussed the crisis in Syria September 9, 2016.

    Russia is outraged by the threatening tone of the latest U.S. statement on Syria, viewing it as tantamount to supporting terrorism, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Thursday, according to Russian news agencies.

    Ryabkov was referring to a statement made by U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby who said on Wednesday that Russia had an interest in stopping the violence in Syria because extremists could exploit the vacuum there and launch attacks "against Russian interests, perhaps even Russian cities."

    "We cannot interpret this as anything else apart from the current U.S. administration's de facto support for terrorism," Ryabkov was quoted as saying.

    "These thinly disguised invitations to use terrorism as a weapon against Russia show the political depths the current U.S. administration has stooped to in its approach to the Middle East and specifically to Syria."

    Russian airstrikes Aleppo Sept 20-22 2016U.S. officials said on Wednesday that Obama administration officials had begun considering tougher responses to the Russian-backed Syrian government assault on Aleppo, including military options, as rising tensions with Moscow diminish hopes for a diplomatic solution.

    Ryabkov was quoted as saying that Moscow saw no alternative to an original U.S.-Russia plan to try to get a ceasefire in Syria and that Washington should focus on implementing it.

    He said a seven-day ceasefire plan proposed by the United States was unacceptable however and that Moscow was proposing a 48-hour "humanitarian pause" in Aleppo instead.

    SEE ALSO: 'Putin's Bridge' connecting Russia to Crimea might be having issues

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    This image taken from footage released by the Russian Defence Ministry's official website reportedly shows a Russian bomber Tupolev Tu-22M3 conducting airstrikes

    Moscow (AFP) - Russia on Thursday said it is pressing on with its bombing campaign in Syria despite the US warning it will end talks on the conflict if Moscow does not halt the assault on Aleppo.

    "Moscow is continuing its air operation to support the anti-terrorist actions of the Syrian armed forces," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

    He insisted that Russia remained interested in cooperation with Washington over the conflict. 

    Russian airstrikes Aleppo Sept 20-22 2016

     

     

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    German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016

    Berlin (AFP) - Russia has a "special responsibility to calm violence and give a political process a chance" in Syria, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday.

    "The latest offensive by the Syrian regime against Aleppo -- supported by Russia -- has made the suffering of the civilian population yet worse," the two leaders agreed in a telephone conversation, according to a statement released by Merkel's office.

    Russia said on Thursday that it would continue its Syrian air campaign in the face of warnings from US Secretary of State John Kerry that Washington would pull the plug on any more talks unless Moscow stopped the bombing of the besieged city.

    Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have launched a renewed assault on the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo, after a ceasefire deal brokered by the United States and Russia broke down.

    UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday labelled bombings that hit the two main hospitals in Aleppo's rebel district "war crimes".

    "The repeated flagrant violations against humanitarian international law which have been reported are unacceptable. A ceasefire is more urgent than ever," Merkel and Erdogan agreed in their conversation, which also touched on the fight against the Islamic State group.

    Turkey launched an offensive dubbed "Euphrates Shield" on August 24 to drive IS jihadists and Kurdish rebel fighters away from its southern frontier.

    Ankara supports rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Russia's air force has been supporting the government forces for a year.

    Ties between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan were badly shaken in November, when Turkish forces shot down a Russian bomber they said had strayed into their airspace from Syria.

    But Moscow and Ankara have since removed their relations from the deep freeze with promises of closer cooperation. 

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    Antony Blinken

    A senior Obama administration official stumbled Thursday when pressed on the US plan to deal with the crisis in Syria, appearing unable to provide details about what comes next after a failed ceasefire.

    Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee and the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, repeatedly pressed Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a committee hearing.

    The US has been searching for a way to help resolve a five-year civil war between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups that has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and led to the proliferation of extremist groups like ISIS inside the country. But a ceasefire deal brokered with Russia earlier this month fell apart.

    "I'd like to understand what Plan B is," Corker said. "The mysterious Plan B that has been referred to since February, the mysterious Plan B that was supposed to be leverage to get Russia to quit killing innocent people, to get Assad to quit killing innocent people. Just explain to us the elements of Plan B."

    Blinken seemed unsure of the specifics of the so-called Plan B.

    "In the first instance, Plan B is the consequence of the failure as a result of Russia's actions of Plan A," he said. "In that, what is likely to happen now is if the agreement cannot be followed through on and Russia reneges totally on its commitments, which it appears to have done, is this is going, of course, to be bad for everyone, but it's going to be bad first and foremost..."

    Corker cut him off, asking for more specifics.

    "I want to hear about Plan B," Corker said. "I understand all the context here."

    Blinken pressed on.

    "I think, sir, this is important because Russia has a profound incentive in trying to make this work," Blinken said. "It can't win in Syria. It can only prevent Assad from losing. If this now gets to the point where the civil war actually accelerates, all of the outside patrons are going to throw in more and more weaponry against Russia. Russia will be left propping up Assad in an ever-smaller piece of Syria under constant assault..."

    Corker cut in again.

    "I understand that," he said. "What is Plan B? Give me the elements of Plan B."

    Blinken tried again, but was still vague on details.

    "Again, the consequences I think to Russia as well as to the regime will begin to be felt as a result of Plan A not being implemented because of Russia's actions," Blinken said. "Second, as I indicated, the president has asked all of the agencies to put forward options, some familiar, some new, that we are very actively reviewing. When we are able to work through these in the days ahead, we will have an opportunity to come back and talk about them in detail."

    Corker didn't seem satisfied.

    "OK, so let me just say what we already know," he said. "There is no Plan B."

    This is a familiar criticism of the Obama administration's Syria policy.

    Mutasem Alsyofi of the Syrian Civil Society Declaration Initiative said in a statement last week that Secretary of State John Kerry wasn't able to articulate a coherent plan for Syria when he met with a Syrian delegation in New York City.

    "Kerry's plan is to do more of the same — despite the repeated failure of US attempts to strike a deal with Russia," Alsyofi said. "Syrians need a clear guarantee that the continued killing of civilians will be met with action to protect civilians. We do not need further failed agreements with Russia."

    The US recently worked with Russia to implement a ceasefire between the Assad regime and rebels in Syria, excluding extremist groups. But the deal — referred to as "Plan A" during Blinken's testimony — fell apart before it was seen through to completion.

    The Wall Street Journal reported on the administration's "Plan B" for Syria earlier this year, citing unnamed US officials who described a covert operation to provide moderate rebels with more powerful weapons. Blinken did not mention such a program during his testimony.

    Here's the video:

    SEE ALSO: Obama had a tense exchange with CNN's Jake Tapper over why he won't say 'radical Islamic terrorism'

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    Hmeymim base russia syria

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia has reinforced its air base in Syria with several bombers and is ready to send ground attack aircraft as it intensifies support for Syrian government troops after the collapse of a ceasefire plan, Russia's Izvestia daily reported on Friday.

    A group of Su-24 and Su-34 frontline bombers have already arrived at the Hmeymim base, Izvestia wrote, quoting an unnamed military official. "If need be, the air force group will be (further) built up within two to three days," he said.

    "Su-25 ground attack fighters designated to be sent to Hmeymim have already been selected in their units and their crews are on a stand-by, awaiting orders from their commanders."

    Russia's defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request from Reuters for comment.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday said there is no point pursuing further negotiations with Russia over Syria, leaving Washington without a backup plan and scrambling to develop new options to stop the mounting carnage.

    A Russian Su-24 jet

    As the U.S.-Russian ceasefire plan for Syria fell through, U.S. officials have told Reuters that President Barack Obama's administration had begun considering tougher responses - including military options - to the Russian-backed Syrian government's assault on Aleppo, the country's largest city.

    The Su-25 is an armoured twin-engine jet which was battle-tested in the 1980s during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. It can be used to strafe targets on the ground, or as a bomber.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial pullout of warplanes and servicemen from Hmeymim in March, saying at the time that the Kremlin had achieved most of its objectives, but stressing it could fast build up its forces again if needed.

     

    (Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Christian Lowe)

    SEE ALSO: Russia says that the latest US statement on Syria is 'de facto support for terrorism'

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    russia airstrike syria

    BEIRUT (AP) — A year of Russian airstrikes on areas outside government control in Syria have killed more than 9,000 people, displaced tens of thousands and caused wide destruction, an opposition monitoring group said Friday.

    On Sept. 30 last year, Russia began an air campaign backing the ground forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, turning the balance of power in his favor in many areas — including the northern province of Aleppo and the suburbs of the capital Damascus.

    Opposition activists have blamed Russia as being responsible for most of the recent airstrikes against rebel-held neighborhoods of east Aleppo city that killed more than 320 civilians in the past two weeks and demolished many buildings.

    A Syrian opposition monitoring group that tracks Syria's civil war said a year of Russian airstrikes have killed 9,364 people in the war-torn country.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the dead include 3,804 civilians, including 906 children. The dead also include 2,746 members of the Islamic State group and 2,814 from other rebel and militant groups, including al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria.

    Russia on Friday is marking one year since it launched its air campaign in Syria in support of Assad. In light of that, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a warning to Russians abroad about possible "provocations," urging them to exercise caution.

    Also Friday, Syria's military and the Observatory said government forces captured a hospital in the northern city of Aleppo a day after regaining control of a Palestinian refugee camp in the city.

    The Syrian military said government forces are strengthening their positions in the Handarat refugee camp and took control on Friday of the Kindi hospital, an unused structure that was damaged in years of war.

    People inspect a damaged site after airstrikes on the rebel held Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 23, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    The Observatory said the hospital is on the northern edge of the city just 2 kilometers (1.3 miles) from a major intersection north of Aleppo known as the Gondol roundabout.

    State TV also reported intense fighting in the central Suleiman al-Halaby area where it said troops captured several buildings. The area is home to a main water stations that supplies Aleppo, Syria's largest city and once commercial center, with drinking water.

    The Local Coordination Committees, another monitoring group said eight soldiers were killed in clashes with rebels near the water station.

    Syrian government forces have been on the offensive in Aleppo for days under the cover of intense airstrikes. State news agency SANA said rebels shelled the government-held part of Aleppo killing four and wounding 10.

    The U.N. health agency decried an "unfathomable" situation for medical care in rebel-held parts of Aleppo, pleading for a halt to the violence that has prevented aid and support from entering.

    Dr. Rick Brennan, emergency risk director for the World Health Organization, said the security situation is too dangerous for outside medical personnel to enter rebel-held eastern Aleppo.

    Speaking Friday to reporters in Geneva, Brennan appealed for permission to evacuate the sick and injured. He said 846 people have been wounded, including 261 children, in the last couple of weeks.

    He said fewer than 30 doctors doing work that's "beyond heroic" are now in eastern Aleppo, where at least 250,000 people live under siege.

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    A general view shows a deserted street filled with debris of damaged buildings in Deir al-Zor March 5, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

    BEIRUT – Pro-Assad militias have reportedly engaged in fighting against each other in Syria’s Deir Ezzor, where regime forces are encircled by ISIS.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Thursday that combatants in the National Defense Force (NDF) that serves as an auxiliary for the Syrian army exchanged gunfire with members of Army of Tribes, a loyalist militia made up of members of the Al-Shaitat tribe.

    The monitoring NGO tracking developments in the war-torn country did not go into details on the cause of the clashes, reporting only that a civilian was injured as a result of the firefight.  

    A local activist group reported that the fighting kicked off after Army of Tribes militiamen and members of the Al-Busrayah tribe in the local NDF contingent got into a “verbal argument” that degenerated into brawling and a gunfight.

    The NDF rushed reinforcement to the site of the engagement to back the Al-Busrayah tribesmen, Deir Ezzor 24 also said.

    “Fifty NDF members armed with heavy weapons surrounded [the area] and forced shopkeepers to close their businesses and imposed a curfew,” the report added.

    Another pro-opposition outlet, 7al.me, offered a similar account of the incident, claiming that five Army of Tribes fighters beat one of the NDF members to death after cursing him and the militia’s leader, Firas Jiham.

    7al.me echoed Deir Ezzor 24’s report that the NDF deployed in force at the area of the clashes along Alwadi Street, adding also that NDF members “opened fire at the [Army of Tribes] HQ, killing six members and wounding others.”

    The NDF in Deir Ezzor has previously clashed with the Army of Tribes, which maintains ties with the Military Security Branch in Deir Ezzor as well as the Republican Guard forces stationed in the city, which is split between ISIS and pro-regime forces.

    A Deir Ezzor resident told All4Syria that a rumor has circulated around regime-held areas of the city that the Military Security Branch purposely planned the fighting as part of a scheme to “break the power of the NDF and exact revenge” for previous rounds of fighting.

    NOW's English news desk editor Albin Szakola (@AlbinSzakola) wrote this report. Amin Nasr translated Arabic-language material. 

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