Middle East

Syria conflict: East Aleppo braces itself for more air strikes

Rubble from damaged buildings in the street, 3 November 2016 Image copyright Dan Isaacs/BBC
Image caption Swathes of Aleppo's old city have already been destroyed

With the Syrian government's final deadline for civilians and fighters to leave rebel-held east Aleppo about to run out, the city's residents are bracing themselves for more attacks from Syrian and Russian forces. Owen Bennett-Jones reports from government-held west Aleppo.

Escape corridors for those who want safe passage will be opened between 09:00 and 19:00 on Friday (06:00 and 16:00 GMT). It is widely expected that once that deadline has passed, air strikes will resume.

For their part the rebels, who are trying to break the siege of east Aleppo, have vowed to defend their positions.

On Thursday there was a sharp escalation in fighting between the two halves of the city. Security officials in west Aleppo say that the rebels in the east deployed three suicide truck bombers. The first truck was stopped by an anti-tank missile and the next two were forced to blew themselves up short of their targets.

The rebels also launched sustained rocket attacks in the western part of the city.

Officials in the city say 26 people were killed and 200 injured.

Image copyright Dan Isaacs/BBC
Image caption Grieving relatives stood near the hospital, like this woman who had lost her son

The al-Razi hospital had to deal with west Aleppo's casualties.

Throughout the afternoon ambulances, sirens blaring, speeded towards the intensive care unit to drop off those needing treatment. As soon as the vehicles were emptied, they rushed off to pick up more casualties.

Despair and rage

One 14-year-old boy weeping outside the hospital said his mother had been killed.

An uncle explained that the boy's father had also been killed, in a separate attack the day before.

As an aunt tried to comfort the orphaned boy he switched between despair and rage, embracing her and then lashing out at her.

The Syrian government says winning control of east Aleppo is now its top priority. And in government-held west Aleppo many support that objective, saying that while they are concerned about civilian casualties caused by air strikes, government sovereignty must be restored.

"We asked you to leave. You did not leave. So excuse me if we smash you," said Fares Shehabi, one of the city's members of parliament.

Image copyright Dan Isaacs/BBC
Image caption Mr Shehabi told me rebels in east Aleppo would be 'smashed'

Mr Shehabi is subject to EU sanctions for providing economic support to the Assad regime.

There are two parallel versions of the conflict in Syria. As far as the state is concerned, violent jihadist terrorists are trying to overthrow the government. But the rebels see a repressive government prepared to kill and torture Syrians so as to remain in power.

The Syrian government's military prospects were transformed by Russia's 2015 decision to intervene in the conflict.

Since then so-called Islamic State, one of the many armed groups in the region, has lost significant amounts of territory including the symbolically important town of Dabiq.

The rolling conflict has left much of Syria in ruins.

The UN's Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has estimated the number of deaths since the war began at more than 400,000. Around half the population have been forced to flee their homes.

The physical damage is so widespread that experienced war correspondents say the only place that has suffered comparable levels of destruction was the Chechen capital Grozny when the Russians besieged in in 2000.

Image copyright Dan Isaacs/BBC
Image caption Government officials say people from 85 different countries are fighting in Syria's complicated war

The Western powers are calling for President Assad to stand down.

They point not only to the humanitarian disaster in besieged east Aleppo but also to the government's history of brutal political repression.

Amnesty International believes that since 2011 at least 17,000 people have died in Syria's detention centres. It has reported that tens of thousands have been beaten, raped, given electric shocks.

As the stalemate in Aleppo suggests, the conflict is far from over.

By most estimates Damascus controls under half of Syrian territory and there are now so many foreign powers involved, the war could continue for many more years yet.

Government officials say there are now people from 85 different countries fighting on Syrian soil. The governments of the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have all invested considerable forces in the Syrian conflict.

But their conflicting interests mean it will be difficult for them to find a mutually agreeable settlement and order their various proxy forces to stand down.

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