By Tom Perry, Isla Binnie and Vladimir Soldatkin
BEIRUT/ROME/MOSCOW, Dec 3 – Russia said on Saturday it was ready for talks with the United States about a withdrawal of all Syrian rebels from eastern Aleppo where advances by the Russian-backed Syrian army and its allies threaten to deal a crushing blow to the rebellion.
An official with an Aleppo rebel group accused Russia of backtracking on ideas agreed at talks in Turkey that would have led to a ceasefire, and said rebel commanders had vowed to fight on even as they face intense bombardment and ground assaults.
Russia has acknowledged contacts with the rebels but given no details of the talks in Turkey.
“I asked the factions, they said ‘we will not surrender’,” said Zakaria Malahifji, the head of the political office of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim faction, speaking from Turkey.
But with the rebels under fierce assault in their shrinking enclave, the U.N. envoy for Syria suggested eastern Aleppo could fall to the government by the end of the year and hoped a “formula” could be found to avoid a “terrible battle”.
The government advances in Aleppo have brought President Bashar al-Assad to the brink of his biggest victory yet in the war that grew out of protests against his rule in 2011.
Backed by the Russian air force and Shi’ite militias from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, the government has gradually closed in on eastern Aleppo this year. The latest phase of the attack has driven rebels from more than half the territory they held.
The United Nations estimates that close to 30,000 people have been displaced by the latest fighting, 18,000 of them leaving to government-held areas and a further 8,500 going to the Kurdish-controlled neighbourhood of Sheikh Maqsoud.
Tens of thousands of people are thought to be sheltering in the rebel-held east, where supplies of food and fuel are critically low and hospitals have been repeatedly bombed out of operation.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that reports on the war, said up to 200,000 people may still be in the rebel-held area. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said it could be more than 100,000 people.
Russia, which has assumed a pivotal role in Syria since it deployed its air force there 15 months ago, said the withdrawal of all rebels would “normalize life” in eastern Aleppo.
“We are immediately ready to send out military experts, diplomats to Geneva in order to agree mutual actions with our American colleagues to ensure the pullout of all the rebels without exclusion from eastern Aleppo,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
There was no immediate comment from the United States, which has backed some of the rebel groups fighting Assad, including Free Syrian Army factions fighting in the Aleppo area.
The rebels say they have been abandoned to their fate in eastern Aleppo by foreign governments such as the United States.
With no good options, the rebels have been holding talks with Russian officials which they say had produced agreements including the departure of all jihadist fighters from Aleppo. Malahifji said Lavrov’s comments had “cancelled everything” and the meetings in Turkey had “almost come to a halt”.
“The military commanders in Aleppo said ‘we will not leave the city. There is no problem with corridors for civilians to leave, but we will not leave the city’,” Malahifji said.
The Observatory and a Syrian army source said government forces had advanced further, capturing the Tariq al-Bab area. The Observatory said government forces had seized at least 60 percent of the area the rebels had held.
Rebels officials said the assault on Tariq al-Bab had been repelled. Fierce clashes were underway in the Aziza as rebels sought to repel another attempted advance, a rebel official said.
At least seven plumes of smoke were seen rising from rebel-held areas of the city on Saturday as the sound of jets could be heard overhead, a Reuters witness in the government-held western Aleppo said.
The Observatory said at least three people were killed in an air strike on the al-Shaer neighbourhood of eastern Aleppo.
The civil defense rescue service in eastern Aleppo said a gathering of displaced people had been struck and put the death toll at more than six. The army denies targeting civilians.
The Observatory also reported that rebels shot down a Syrian war plane over Aleppo, killing the two pilots on board. Reuters could not obtain Syrian military comment on the report.
ALEPPO’S FALL WON’T END WAR
Speaking at a conference in Rome, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura indicated eastern Aleppo could fall by the end of the year, saying “Aleppo is not going to stay that long”.
“I was feeling it would be a terrible battle ending up by Christmas/New Year. I hope the battle will not take place, that there will be some type of formula,” he said.
In apparent reference to the talks between Russian and rebel officials, de Mistura said “informal negotiations” had reduced the level of fighting in eastern Aleppo – a comment which rebel officials dismissed as out of touch with reality.
The government has reached numerous local agreements with rebels in besieged areas by which they have been given safe passage to the insurgent-held province of Idlib in northwestern Syria. Some analysts believe the Aleppo rebels may eventually be forced to accept such an agreement.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, speaking in Rome, said she was certain Aleppo’s fall would not end the war, and there would be other military escalations.
“This will only make things worse and, by the way, I am convinced the fall of Aleppo will not end the war. We will have other military escalations. So if a call to stop has to be made, it has to be made now, not tomorrow or in a week’s time,” she said.