Progovernment forces advance in Syrian cities

BEIRUT — In Moscow on Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia laid bunches of flowers in memory of the victims of the truck attack in Nice, France, then spent hours debating proposals for new cooperation in Syria.

But the discussions, aimed at fighting terrorism and restarting political talks to end the war, took place against a backdrop of new carnage in Syria, where a very different dynamic is playing out.

Progovernment forces are tightening a new siege around the country’s largest city, Aleppo, amid intense bombing. Farther south, they are on the verge of overrunning the long-besieged Damascus suburb of Daraya, one of the first to rebel against the government of President Bashar Assad five years ago. They have stepped up airstrikes, hitting marketplaces and tent camps, as civilians trapped behind blockades continue to die for lack of food and medical care.


Both supporters and opponents of Assad say he and his allies are seeking to press their military campaign as far as it can go before January, when a new US president might take a tougher line in Syria.

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Even as the Syrian government periodically issues declarations of temporary cease-fires, that policy is playing out with devastating effect on the ground in Syria.

The siege that people on the rebel-held side of Aleppo have dreaded for years seems to have arrived this week, adding to besieged areas across the country where aid groups say 1 million people are trapped. The only road connecting the city to the border with Turkey and rebel-held countryside has long been subject to airstrikes. But after recent advances, government forces can now rake it with artillery and machine-gun fire.

The United Nations and international aid groups are raising alarms, saying that food, medicine, and medical personnel are unable to reach the city.

“We need to be able to reach eastern Aleppo,” Jan Egeland, the UN humanitarian adviser to the special envoy on Syria, said in Geneva on Friday, estimating that about 250,000 people still live there. “It is on the verge of becoming yet another besieged location — our largest.”


The fear in Aleppo is that the government will surround it and starve and shell it until it surrenders, as it did with Homs, a smaller city, where a siege of the downtown lasted more than two years and left virtually every building damaged. But Aleppo is far larger, and such a siege would be longer and bloodier.

Abdul Ghani Shoubak, a lawyer and member of the local council who made it into the city last week from Turkey, is not sure when he will be able to make it out. Signs of siege are evident, he said.

“Sugar and eggs disappeared from the market, and it is hard to find cooking gas,” Shoubak, 30, said. He said the council was trying to ration food for the public, but the biggest problem was the inability to evacuate the wounded.

There are just a few dozen doctors left for a population of 300,000, said Dr. Hatem Abu Yazan, who works for the city’s only pediatric hospital, the Children’s Hospital of Aleppo, which endured an airstrike several months ago that killed several of his colleagues.

“This tells us that they are trying to displace people, forcing them to leave the city,” Yazan said. “They have no problem in targeting anything.”


Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, the capital, has held out for so long that residents find it hard to believe that government tanks are suddenly threatening to split the town. It lies just south of Damascus, close to major roads and military installations, and is a high-stakes symbol for both the government and its opponents.

‘Sugar and eggs disappeared from the market, and it is hard to find cooking gas.’

Rebels there are running out of arms and ammunition as the government, backed by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, has slowly retaken supply routes.

Daraya was one of the first towns to revolt, first with peaceful protests, where residents such as Ghiath Mattar, who would hand roses to soldiers and police officers, inspired imitators around the country before he was detained and tortured to death. Later, Daraya was one of the first of the working-class suburbs around Damascus to take up arms, and to be attacked with artillery and helicopters. In a 2012 massacre, numerous witnesses reported at the time, hundreds were killed with knives by government militias.