Syria announces new offensive, diplomats fail to renew truce

September 22, 2016 8:20 AM EDT

Damaged aid trucks are pictured after an airstrike on the rebel held Urm al-Kubra town, western Aleppo city, Syria September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah


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By Tom Perry and Lesley Wroughton

BEIRUT/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Syria announced a new offensive against rebel-held areas of Aleppo on Thursday while diplomats failed to find a way in New York to revive a U.S. and Russian-brokered ceasefire that collapsed this week.

Warplanes mounted the heaviest air strikes in months against rebel-held districts of Syria's commercial hub and largest city, dealing a fresh blow to efforts to end Syrian civil war that has raged since 2011.

Rebel officials and rescue workers said incendiary bombs were among the weapons that rained down on Aleppo. Hamza al-Khatib, the director of a hospital in the rebel-held east, told Reuters 45 people were killed.

"It's as if the planes are trying to compensate for all the days they didn't drop bombs" during the ceasefire, Ammar al-Selmo, the head of the civil defense rescue service in opposition-held eastern Aleppo, told Reuters.

Moscow and Washington announced the ceasefire on Sept. 9. But the agreement, possibly the final bid for a breakthrough on Syria before President Barack Obama leaves office in January, collapsed like all previous efforts to halt a 5-1/2-year-old war that has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and made half the nation homeless.

Syrian state media announced the new offensive and quoted the army's military headquarters in Aleppo urging civilians in eastern parts of the city to avoid areas where "terrorists" were located and said it had prepared exit points for those who want to flee, including rebels.

The Syrian army announcement did not say whether the campaign would also include a ground incursion.

The aerial assault, by aircraft from the Syrian government, its Russian allies or both, signaled Moscow and Damascus had rejected a plea by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to halt flights so aid could be delivered and the ceasefire salvaged.

In a tense televised exchange with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the United Nations on Wednesday, Kerry said stopping the bombardment was the last chance to find a way "out of the carnage".

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad indicated he saw no quick end to the war, telling the Associated Press it would "drag on" as long as it is part of a global conflict in which terrorists are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United States.

HEAVIEST STRIKES FOR MONTHS

Had the U.S.-Russian brokered truce, which took effect on Sept. 12, held, and had humanitarian aid consistently flowed to Syria, this could have led to intelligence-sharing by Moscow and Washington to go after Syrian militant groups they both oppose.

The ceasefire deal suffered two blows in the last week. On Saturday, the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State militant group carried out a lethal air raid on Syrian government troops. Washington said it hit Syrian forces by mistake. Assad said in his interview he believed the strikes, which he said lasted over an hour, were deliberate.

On Monday, the ceasefire foundered further with an attack on an aid convoy that killed around 20 people and that Washington blamed on Russian planes. Russia denied involvement.

In another sign of the Syrian government's determination to gain territory, it evacuated more rebel fighters from the last opposition-held district of Homs, which would complete the government's recapture of the central city, now largely in ruins.

LONG, PAINFUL, DISAPPOINTING MEETING

Foreign ministers emerged from a meeting in New York having failed to find a way back to a ceasefire, though the United State's Kerry said he was willing to keep trying if Russia came back with new ideas.

"I am no less determined today than I was yesterday but I am even more frustrated," Kerry told reporters after the session.

"It was a long, painful, difficult and disappointing meeting," the U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters after the meeting of the International Syria Support Group, which includes about two dozen major and regional powers.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior U.S. official put the onus on Moscow to come up with ideas on how to ground the Syrian air force, a U.S. objective to reduce the violence.

However, emerging from a meeting that he said was "intense," French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault described Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's response to a proposal for grounding planes as "not satisfying."

Assad, helped by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, has steadily tightened his grip on the opposition-held eastern areas of Aleppo this year, achieving a long-held goal of fully encircling it this summer.

Capturing the rebel-held half of Syria's largest city would be the biggest victory of the war for the government side, which has already achieved its strongest position in years thanks to Russian and Iranian support.

The United Nations announced that it was resuming aid deliveries to rebel-held areas on Thursday following a 48-hour suspension to review security guarantees after Monday's attack on the aid convoy near Aleppo.

Assad has appeared as uncompromising as ever in recent weeks, reiterating his goal of taking back the whole country.

The government's main focus has been to consolidate its grip over the main cities of western Syria and the coastal region that is the ancestral homeland of Assad's Alawite sect.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington and Angus McDowall in Beirut, Marwan Makdesi in Homs, Michael Nienaber in Berlin, Stephanie Nebehay, Marina Depetris and Tom Miles in Geneva, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, and Denis Dyomkin, Parisa Hafezi, John Irish, Michelle Nichols and Lesley Wroughton in New York; Writing by Tom Perry and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Peter Graff and Howard Goller)



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