Wednesday 7 December 2016

The Syrian army seized control of the whole of Aleppo’s Old City overnight on Tuesday, government news sources reported, as rebels proposed a truce and Turkey pushed for fresh talks.

The reports were corroborated on Wednesday morning by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said that rebels had pulled out from the last remaining districts of Bab al-Hadid and Aqyul.

The advance on the ground has been backed up by heavy air strikes on areas of the east still under rebel control.

News of the advance came as rebel factions in Aleppo put forward a proposal for a five-day ceasefire, after a day of heavy fighting reportedly killed dozens of civilians. The local White Helmet civil defense group put the number of those killed in various rebel-held districts on Tuesday at 53.

One image shared by activists on social media showed an elderly woman lying prone in a wheelchair after apparently being killed as she crossed the street.

Al Jazeera reported on Wednesday that the rebels were proposing a five-day truce to allow civilians and severely injured people to be evacuated. It did not specify which rebel groups were behind the proposal.

Rebels suffer setbacks

The rebel loss of the Old City comes only hours after they suffered heavy casualties in their former stronghold of eastern Aleppo.

Government troops retook seven districts, including the strategic Shaar neighborhood. They now control more than three-quarters of former rebel territory in the city’s east, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday. It called Shaar “the most important neighborhood in the heart of east Aleppo,” and said rebels were reduced to fighting a “war of attrition”.

The rapid gains for the government have left opposition fighters scrambling to defend the shrinking enclave they still control in Aleppo’s south-eastern districts.

But despite mounting criticism of the fresh offensive that began on 15 November, world powers have struggled to find a way to halt the fighting.

“We have been trying to find a way to get to the negotiating table … but Assad has never shown any willingness,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on Tuesday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was a “disgrace” that the international community had been unable to alleviate the suffering.

Turkey to push talks between Russia and Syrian rebels

News of the rebel proposals for a truce came amid reports that Ankara is doing “everything possible” to facilitate negotiations between Moscow and Syrian opposition groups.

“We are doing everything possible to bring about contacts between opposition representatives and Russia and have achieved very good success on this score,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told Russia’s Interfax news agency in an interview published on Wednesday. Yildrim met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday.

“If any consensus reached is turned into a signed document then that would be to everyone’s benefit. Now is the time when you need to get results,” Yildirim added in comments translated into Russian.

A source told AFP in late November that Russian representatives had met with Syrian rebels in Turkey to discuss the possibility of a truce in Aleppo, but failed to reach a deal.

Russia is pushing for a total rebel withdrawal from Aleppo before any ceasefire can come into force, while Ankara wants an immediate halt to the fighting.

Russia and Turkey are on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict: Moscow has backed leader Bashar al-Assad, while Ankara supports groups opposing him and have mounted a three-month border operation inside northern Syria.

Yildirim softened Ankara’s rhetoric on Assad’s future after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sparked Moscow’s ire by claiming Turkey intervened in the Syria conflict solely to topple Assad.

“Undoubtedly, the fate of the many ethnic groups represented in Syria is much more important than the fate of one person in particular – Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

Russian army colonel killed

Meanwhile, Russia said Wednesday that an army colonel working as a military adviser in Syria died several days after being wounded by rebel shelling in Aleppo.

“Ruslan Galitsky passed away in hospital as a result of his serious injuries. Russian army medics fought for several days to save his life,” the defense ministry said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies.

It said he was wounded in the shelling of a residential area in western Aleppo by the “so-called opposition”.

Galitsky – who reportedly commanded a tank brigade based in Siberia – is one of the highest-ranking Russian servicemen among the estimated 20 Moscow says have been killed in Syria.

The statement did not specify where or when exactly Galitsky died. On Monday Russia said two female Russian medics were killed by rebel shelling of an army field hospital in Aleppo.

Source: Middle East Eye.