Backed By Russian Jets, Syrian Army Closes In On Aleppo

Peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the 5-year-long war were put on hold because of the offensive.

A Syrian army source said the city of Aleppo would soon be encircled by government forces as rebels pounded by Russian air strikes expressed hope that the failure of Geneva peace talks would encourage their foreign backers to send better weapons.

Turkey, a major sponsor of the insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad, said there was no point to peace talks while Russia carried out attacks in Syria. Moscow confirmed a Russian military trainer was killed in Syria this week, but denied that Russian servicemen were fighting on the ground.

The United Nations on Wednesday suspended the first peace talks in two years, halting an effort that seemed doomed from the start as the war raged unabated on the ground and government forces severed a major rebel supply route into strategically-important Aleppo, Syria's biggest city before the war began.

Four months of Russian air strikes have tipped the momentum Assad's way after rebel advances earlier in 2015 that posed a growing threat to his control of crucial areas of western Syria.

With the help of Russian air power and allies including Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iranian fighters on the ground, the overstretched Syrian army is regaining ground on key fronts in the west, where Syria's most important cities are located.

But vast swathes of the country are in the hands of armed rebels, including a mosaic of groups in the west, Islamic State in the east, and Kurdish militia in the north.

The refugee crisis created by the five-year-long war moved back into focus as donors convened in London on Thursday, with U.N. agencies seeking billions in aid to help the victims of a conflict that has forced millions from their homes.

Syrians walk on a field as they migrate to Azaz region of Aleppo after Russian jets carried out airstrikes on opposition controlled regions.
Syrians walk on a field as they migrate to Azaz region of Aleppo after Russian jets carried out airstrikes on opposition controlled regions.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the first steps in peace talks were undermined by increased aerial bombing. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura announced a three-week pause.

“I think the special envoy decided to suspend the talks because the organization did not want to be associated with the Russian escalation in Syria, which risks undermining the talks completely,” a U.N. official told Reuters.

Washington and Moscow’s support for opposite sides in the five-year-old war, which has drawn in regional states, created millions of refugees and enabled the rise of Islamic State, means a local conflict has become a fraught global stand-off.

Moscow accuses Washington, which is backing opponents of Assad, of supporting terrorists, while the U.S. State Department said the air strikes around Aleppo focused mainly on Assad’s foes rather than the Islamic State militants Russia says it is trying to defeat.


Aleppo, 50 km (30 miles) south of the Turkish border, is divided into areas of government and opposition control. Since the start of Russia’s bombing campaign, the army and its allies have launched major offensives to the south of the city against rebels, and to the east against Islamic State.

The army source said operations to fully encircle Aleppo from the west would happen soon. The army and its allies on Wednesday broke through rebel lines to the northwest of the city, reaching two Shi’ite towns loyal to the government for the first time in 3-1/2 years.

If the government regains control of Aleppo, it would be a big blow to insurgents’ hopes of toppling Assad after a war that has divided Syria between western areas mostly still governed from Damascus and much of the rest of the country held by armed groups.

Residents thanked Assad, Iran and Hezbollah in celebratory scenes from the towns of Nubul and al-Zahraa broadcast by Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV. The powerful Kurdish YPG militia, which controls wide areas of northern Syria, meanwhile added to the pressure on insurgents, capturing two villages near Nubul and al-Zahraa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

The Syrian Kurds have consistently denied opposition claims that they cooperate with Damascus.

Rebel commanders said they hoped the peace talks’ collapse would convince their foreign backers, states including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that it was time to send them more powerful and advanced weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles.

Assad’s foreign opponents have been funneling weapons to vetted rebel groups via both Turkey and Jordan.

One rebel leader said he expected “something new God willing” after the failure of the Geneva talks.

Another rebel commander said: “They are promising to continue the support. In what form, I don’t yet know ... How it will crystallize, nobody knows ... We need to wait.”

Both spoke on condition of anonymity citing the sensitivity of the issue.

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