Assad forces press devastating assault on Aleppo
Activists liken use of ‘barrel bombs’ to chemical arms
BEIRUT — The Syrian regime continued its aerial bombardment of northern Syria for the ninth straight day Monday, decimating buildings across the already ravaged city of Aleppo and adding to that province's death toll, which by some activist tallies has grown by more than 300 in a matter of days.
The ''barrel bombs'' — packed with explosives, nails, and other shrapnel — that Assad regime forces are dropping from helicopters over rebel-held areas of Aleppo and neighboring provinces are far cruder than the chemical weapons that the United States and other Western powers are trying to ferry out of the country to destroy. But the barrel bombs are just as imprecise and unpredictable, killing rebel forces and civilians alike, and the fear they provoke is just as intense, activists and rebel fighters say.
''The helicopters haven't left the skies of Aleppo for the last 10 days,'' said Yasser al-Ahmed, a fighter with the Free Syrian Army, who spoke via Skype from the heart of Aleppo as helicopters dropped more explosives-packed oil drums on Monday.
If the world's reaction has been more muted about the barrel bombs, he added with a note of bitter sarcasm, it is probably because chemical weapons are ''internationally banned, whereas explosive barrels must be licensed to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad because he invented them.''
Local fighters and activists said heavy shelling continued inside Aleppo and its suburbs and in at least three other towns in that province on Monday, including one near Turkey, where Syrians fleeing the bombardment had sought refuge.
Video posted online by activists over the weekend showed men running about the smoking gray rubble that was once a cityscape, as they hauled bodies and body parts into battered vans.
In an Al Jazeera broadcast Monday, men in civilian clothes held up a large circle of metal amid the rubble, shouting: ''This is the barrel, this is the barrel — can you see it? May God take revenge for what is happening here,'' as ambulances screamed past.
Some of the black barrel bombs failed to detonate on impact, instead acting as mines in the rubble that rescue workers sift through as they try to remove the wounded and the dead.
Two major narratives have flowed from the international news coverage of Syria's civil war in recent weeks. One portrays the ongoing struggle by Western diplomats to bring the nation's warring parties to the negotiating table in Geneva next month for what UN officials hope will mark the first real peace talks in the country's nearly three-year-old conflict, as well as the joint international efforts to destroy the regime's chemical weapons stockpiles.
The other narrative is one borne of gruesome images and sounds — the videos, pictures, and phone calls that have helped to illustrate a cold and increasingly bleak battlefield inside Aleppo. Here, banished chemical weapons stocks and forthcoming peace talks matter little.
''They live in a parallel world,'' Ahmed, the rebel fighter, said of those Syrians and others who may or may not show up to the negotiating table in Switzerland.
Activists and fighters say the government has intensified its assault on rebels and civilians ahead of the planned Geneva talks.
''The situation is horrendous,'' said Sasha Ghosh Siminoff, a cofounder of the US-based activist group, People Demand Change, which monitors events in Syria. ''They have never dropped this many barrel bombs at once on one area this consistently,'' she wrote in an e-mail.
In the Aleppo suburb of Marjeh, government helicopters struck the same busy square of a poor neighborhood at least three times Monday, said Hassoun Abu Faisal, a spokesman for the Aleppo Media Center, a local activist group. But the intensity of the bombings has made it ''impossible to keep an accurate statistic going,'' he said. ''And many of the bodies come in extremely disfigured, or are just body parts that we can't use to identify a person.
''The regime is saying 'We can shell wherever we want, whenever we want,''' Abu Faisal said. ''It seems like Geneva Two,'' he said, referring to the peace talks, ''is not for us.''
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said Monday the government was continuing to obliterate ''terrorists' dens.'' The Assad regime characterizes all of the nation's rebel fighters as terrorists.
The Aleppo Media Center on Sunday released a list of 93 names of people who it said were all killed by barrel bombs in Aleppo in that day alone, Abu Faisal said. But just after midnight, ''that number became a hundred.''