Aleppo offensive: Russia and US 'close' to deal on Aleppo, says Moscow

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Residents of rebel-held areas say they fear 'this is the end' after major advance by government troops, backed up by Russian air strikes

A Syrian pro-government tank in in Aleppo's Old City on December 8, 2016 (AFP)
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Thursday 8 December 2016 14:30 UTC
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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad described the retaking of Aleppo as a "huge step" in ending the war, as Syrian government troops continued fighting on Thursday to retake more control of rebel-held territory. 

Speaking to the Al-Watan newspaper, Assad was confident of victory in Aleppo, though he admitted that retaking the city would not end the country's conflict entirely. 

"It's true that Aleppo will be a win for us," Assad said in the interview due to be published on Thursday.

"Let's be realistic it won't mean the end of the war in Syria," Assad said. "But it will be a huge step towards the end."



Despite repeated diplomatic efforts and pleas from opposition figures, as well as many western leaders and the United Nations, Assad has repeatedly rejected talks of a ceasefire in Aleppo. 

Russia and the United States are close to reaching an understanding over Aleppo, the Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying on Thursday.

'We are close to reaching an understanding, but I want to warn against high expectations'

- Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov

"In the past several days an intensive document exchange on the situation in Aleppo has taken place," Ryabkov was quoted as saying.

"We are close to reaching an understanding, but I want to warn against high expectations," Ryabkov added.

The Kremlin said on Wednesday that a potential US-Russia deal to allow Syrian rebels to safely leave Aleppo was still on the cards. 

READ MORE: This is what will happen when Aleppo falls

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was due to meet US Secretary of State John Kerry in Hamburg later on Thursday after the two men held talks on Wednesday.

Residents of rebel-held districts of the Old City have said they feared this is "the end", after government troops succeeded in driving out the last pockets of resistance and seizing control of the Old City.

"I feel this is the end," Reem, a mother of two children, said via a patchy internet connection from a rebel-held district of the historic city centre.



A Syrian government soldier patrols the newly captured eastern neighbourhood of al-Safa (AFP)

"We've long accepted that if we die, we die, from barrel bombs and so on, but now we're scared that the army will come in and take my husband."

Syrian rebels in besieged eastern Aleppo had called on Wednesday for an immediate five-day ceasefire and the evacuation of civilians and wounded, but gave no indication they were ready to withdraw as demanded by Damascus and Moscow.

In a statement calling for the truce, the rebels made no mention of evacuating the several thousand fighters who are defending an ever shrinking area of eastern Aleppo. 

'We've long accepted that if we die, we die, from barrel bombs and so on, but now we're scared that the army will come in and take my husband'

- Reem, Aleppo resident

Syria and Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have said they want rebels to leave Aleppo and will not consider a ceasefire unless that happens.

Ryabkov's statement on Thursday morning did not specify whether a rebel withdrawal would be part of any potential deal agreed with the US.

Retaking Aleppo would be a major success for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who intervened to save Moscow's ally in September 2015 with air strikes, and for Iran, whose elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has suffered casualties fighting for Assad.

The Syrian government now appears closer to victory than at any point in the five years since protests against Assad evolved into an armed rebellion. The war in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of people, made more than half of the entire population homeless and created the world's worst refugee crisis.

READ: Starvation in Aleppo: 'I just hope to die and disappear from this world'

Outside of Aleppo, the government and its allies are also putting severe pressure on remaining rebel redoubts.

After a highly symbolic retreat from Aleppo's Old City, the rebels on Wednesday called for a five-day ceasefire to allow for the evacuation of thousands of civilians still in opposition-held territory.

But Assad's government has said a truce is only possible after a full rebel withdrawal from Aleppo, and opposition fighters have rejected any talk of abandoning the city.