By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN, Sept 25 – Warplanes bombed a strategic camp on the northern edge of Aleppo on Sunday as Syrian government and rebel forces battled for control of the high ground in a Russian-backed offensive that has left Washington’s Syria policy in tatters.
Planes also continued to pound residential parts of the town, flattening buildings, rebels and residents said. More than 250,000 civilians are trapped in the besieged opposition sector and there is growing concern about the escalation in violence since a ceasefire, announced just two weeks ago, unravelled.
The United Nations Security Council is due to meet at 11 a.m. (1500 GMT) to discuss the fighting but the latest campaign for a decisive battlefield victory by President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies appears to have buried any hope for diplomacy.
In their first major ground advance of the offensive, the Syrian army and its militia allies seized control of the Handarat Palestinian refugee camp, a few kilometres north of Aleppo, only for rebels to counterattack a few hours later.
Rebels said on Sunday they had retaken the camp before the bombing started.
“We retook the camp, but the regime burnt it with phosphorous bombs … We were able to protect it, but the bombing burnt our vehicles,” said Abu al-Hassanien, a commander in a rebel operations room that includes the main brigades fighting to repel the army assault.
The army, which is being helped by Iranian-backed militias, Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah militant group and a Palestinian militia, acknowledged rebels had retaken Handarat.
“The Syrian army is targeting the armed groups positions in Handarat camp,” a military source was quoted on state media as saying.
The assault on Aleppo could be the biggest battle yet in a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven 11 million from their homes.
Residents say air strikes on eastern Aleppo since the offensive was announced on Thursday have been more intense than ever, using more powerful bombs. Scores of people have been killed in the last few days.
Rebel officials said air strikes on Saturday hit at least four areas of the opposition-held east, and they believe the strikes are mostly being carried out by Russian warplanes. Video of the blast sites shows huge craters several metres wide and deep.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said at least 45 people, among them 10 children, were killed in eastern Aleppo on Saturday.
The army says it is targeting only militants.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who hammered out the truce over the course of months of intensive diplomacy, was left pleading in vain this week with Russia to halt air strikes.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in an interview aired on Sunday that Russia was guilty of prolonging the war in Syria and may have committed war crimes by targetting an aid convoy.
“(Russia) are guilty of protracting this war and making it far more hideous,” Johnson told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.
“When it comes to instances such as the bombing of aid targets in Aleppo, 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.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the “chilling military escalation” in Aleppo, his spokesman said on Saturday.
Sunday’s United Nations meeting, which will be public, was requested by the United States, Britain and France.
In a meeting on Saturday in Boston, Kerry and his counterparts from the EU, Britain, Germany, Italy and France called on Russia to “take extraordinary steps to restore the credibility of our efforts, including by halting the indiscriminate bombing by the Syrian regime of its own people, which has continually and egregiously undermined efforts to end this war.”
The war has ground on for nearly six years, with all diplomatic efforts collapsing in failure. Half of Syria’s population has been made homeless, world powers and regional states have been drawn in, and Daesh – the enemy of every other party to the conflict – has seized swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
For most of that time, world powers seemed to accept that neither Assad nor his opponents were likely to be capable of decisive victory on the battlefield.
But Russia’s apparent decision to abandon the peace process this week could reflect a change in that calculus and a view that victory is in reach, at least in the western cities where the overwhelming majority of Syrians live.
Assad’s fortunes improved a year ago when Russia joined the war on his side. Since then, Washington has worked hard to negotiate peace with Moscow, producing two ceasefires. But both proved short-lived, with Assad, possibly scenting chances for more battlefield success, showing no sign of compromise.
Moscow says Washington failed to live up to its side of the latest deal by separating mainstream insurgents from hardened jihadists.
Outside Aleppo, anti-Assad fighters have been driven mostly into rural areas. Nevertheless, they remain a potent fighting force, which they demonstrated with an advance of their own on Saturday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday rebels, including the jihadist Jund al-Aqsa group, had seized two villages in northern Hama province, an area that is close to the coastal heartland of Assad’s Alawite minority sect.
A Syrian military source said the army was “fighting fierce battles” around the two villages, Maan and al-Kabariya.
Damascus and its allies including Shi’ite militia from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon have encircled rebel-held areas of Aleppo gradually this year, achieving their long-held objective of fully besieging the area this summer with Russian air support.
A pro-government Iraqi militia commander in the Aleppo area told Reuters the aim was to capture all of Aleppo within a week.
A Western diplomat said on Friday the only way for the government to take the area quickly would be to totally destroy it in “such a monstrous atrocity that it would resonate for generations”.
UNICEF, the U.N. children’s charity, said on Saturday a pumping station providing water for rebel-held eastern Aleppo was destroyed by bombing and the rebels had responded by shutting down a station supplying the rest of the city, leaving 2 million people without access to clean water.
Tarik Jasarevic, spokesman for the World Health Organisation, said on Saturday the water system was working “in around 80 percent of the city – both sides”.