With Assad’s troops poised to deliver the coup de grâce, the UN warned that there was only a week’s worth of food left. The last humanitarian aid delivery to the 250,000 people trapped inside eastern Aleppo was at the start of July.
Regime forces pushed the rebels out of the western districts of Al-Assad and Minyan, setting the rebels’ attempt to lift the siege “back to zero”, Rami Abdulrahman, of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said. The rebels had captured the districts last month.
“The epic battle for Aleppo has failed,” Mr Abdulrahman said, adding that 508 people, including 104 civilians, had been killed in the latest fighting. “The regime has taken back all the ground gained since the start of the rebel offensive. They are back where they started.”
Clashes were reported yesterday in the Karam al-Turab neighbourhood and the village of Al-Aziza just outside the city. Aleppo residents said the regime had sent text messages calling on rebels to flee. “Gunmen in east Aleppo, you have 24 hours only to take the decision to leave,” the message said.
“Those who want to save their lives must put down their weapons and their safety will be guaranteed. After the end of this period, the planned strategic offensive will begin.”
There are now fears of a devastating new offensive as an armada of eight Russian ships, led by Moscow’s flagship aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, move into position along the Syrian coast. It is Russia’s largest naval deployment since the Cold War. The flotilla, which includes the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy, had sailed through the English Channel to join the operation.
Russian warplanes have already pounded the rebel-held areas of Aleppo, killing thousands. Moscow announced a halt on air raids on October 18, a truce that was extended last week.
Nato officials have closely monitored the naval task force, which Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s chief, said was meant to bolster Russia’s involvement and “increase human and civilian suffering”.
Sergei Artamonov, commander of Admiral Kuznetsov, said via video link on Saturday that the vessels were already “jointly carrying out tasks, manoeuvring to the west of the Syrian coast”.
Aircraft including Russian MiG and Sukhoi jets have been regularly flying into Syrian airspace to “determine combat missions”.
“The flights have been going on practically every day for the past four days,” the Russian commander added.
The huge show of might, which points to Russia’s interest in a permanent military presence in the region, comes amid signs of a complete reversal in US policy after the election of Donald Trump. The president-elect used his first interviews to indicate that he would join forces with Russia to fight Islamic State and withdraw support from the rebels.
“My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting Isis and you have to get rid of Isis. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria,” he told The Wall Street Journal on Friday. “Now we’re backing rebels against Syria and we have no idea who these people are.”
If the US attacks Assad, Mr Trump said, “we end up fighting Russia, fighting Syria”.
Embattled rebels in Aleppo told The Times that they were preparing for an imminent attack. “The Russians seem to be gearing themselves up for a third world war with their military build-up. The people are definitely afraid,” said Zakaria Malahifji, a spokesman for the Fastaqim group, one of the main rebel factions.
In the city, residents said “morale had collapsed” after the rebel offensive failed and amid reports of the Russian naval deployment. Scarcity of food was driving prices up.
“All fresh food is unavailable except for some herbs like parsley, coriander and lettuce for very high prices,” Ali Jaber said. “Rice has risen by ten times in price. Sugar by 14. Children need medicine and milk. Almost all drugs are unavailable. We’re scared.
Brita Hagi Hasan, head of Aleppo’s local council, said that food reserves were in their “last drops”. He urged the UN to organise emergency food deliveries.
In northern Syria, rebels backed by Turkish forces advanced to just over a mile from the Isis stronghold of Al-Bab as part of Ankara’s Operation Euphrates Shield.
The Sunday Time