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Aleppo civilians cling to survival as battle rages for control

MEE visited the site of an alleged white phosphorous attack on the city where residents said they felt their lungs burning and skin itching
Rebel forces have effectively broken the siege of Aleppo by government loyalists and allies (AFP)

ALEPPO, Syria - Jamana al-Ahmed turns her tap and nothing comes out. She flicks the light switch and remains in darkness. She hides in her makeshift home in central Aleppo from bombs and patrols of shabiha - the feared pro-government paramilitary force - who seek out and abduct those they suspect of collaboration with rebels.

The Free Syrian Army's (FSA) push to break the government siege of the city, while celebrated by those who oppose President Bashar al-Assad, has made a terrible life more terror-filled for many of those left in the city.

Rebel fighters have pressed from the east into government-held areas of Aleppo to the west, on Saturday opening supply routes and cutting off forces loyal to Assad, who in turn launched a fierce counter-offensives and increased bombing on rebel-held areas and frontlines.

For Ahmed, too fearful to disclose her exact location in the city, there is little to do but cling to survival. 

"The security situation has been awful since the FSA launched their all-out campaign [at the start of the month]," she said.

"The shabiha have been harassing civilians here – they are suspicious because the FSA was able to advance very quickly throughout much of Aleppo. 

"I’ve heard that female students have been abducted around the university, and houses have been looted after the residents fled due to the heavy bombing and fighting.

"In the east, there is almost daily bombing of Nile Street and al-Suleymania, as well as Hamdaniya which the FSA have been attacking in recent days. Civilians are getting killed every day – but people haven’t been taking the right precautions when the fighting comes. They gather in public places and streets to watch the warplanes in the sky as they drop their bombs!"

The water situation in Aleppo is "catastrophic", warns UN.

Ahmed said life for her and her four children was growing ever harder.

"After the siege was lifted from eastern areas of the city, and the rebels seized control of large areas of Ramousa Road, a key supply route to the city, there was immediately a huge increase in the prices of staple goods and fuel in western areas of the city that are still under government control,” she said.

"We used to have electricity for 10 hours a day, but this dropped the day after the rebel advance to five hours. Even though there are diesel stocks to last at least a month!

"Water services have basically been non-existent for the past two weeks – when the taps run it’s for very short periods, two hours at most. Electricity cuts also mean we can’t get water, because it comes from pumps that supply the whole city.”

The UN on Tuesday described the water situation in Aleppo as "catastrophic" as two million residents of Aleppo province going without water for four days. 

The UN children's agency said that the fierce fighting that has rocked Aleppo in recent weeks had damaged the electricity networks needed to pump water supplies throughout the divided city.

Medical services were also full to bursting as the injured arrived from the frontlines.

"There have been lots of ambulances going in and out of the military security building close to where we have been staying,” Ahmed said. "A friend of mine lives close to the university hospital, and she says she has there have been huge numbers of injuries and deaths since the battles began."

A separate source told Middle East Eye that at least 100 corpses had passed through the hospital in the last three days of the battle, which continued to rage across the city on Monday.

White phosphorus attack

Rebel forces consolidated their hold on the Ramousa area of the city and its vital Ramousa Road supply line.

However, reprisals by government forces and their Russian allies have fallen heavily on the rebel stronghold of east Aleppo, with reports that Russian jets had dropped white phosphorus bombs on a residential area in al-Mashhad emerging early on Sunday morning.

Middle East Eye visited the site of the alleged attack. A foul smell hung over the debris of explosions, as locals tried with difficulty to dampen fires that continued to rage and billow plumes of thick white smoke - dousing with water had little effect.

The smoke burned the throats of those who inhaled too much.

White phosphorus burns on contact with air, is difficult to extinguish and produces large clouds of thick white smoke - the exact conditions witnessed by MEE.

Casualties were mercifully few. On contact, white phosphorus can burn through skin and cause terrible chemical burns.

Khalid Khamees, from al-Mashhad district, witnessed the aftermath of yesterday’s phosphorus bombing.

"I went down, because the site of the bombing is only about 100m from my house.

"At about 2am on Sunday morning helicopters dropped bombs full of explosive material and flammable shrapnel – phosphorus – on the area. No civilians were killed as far as I know but some were injured. 

"The building that was bombed collapsed and caught fire. I haven’t seen this kind of bombing in Mashhad before."

More fighting on the way

Syrian government forces and rebel factions reportedly sent hundreds of reinforcements to Aleppo on Monday as both sides braced for a crucial battle to control the country's second city.

Rebel forces on Saturday announced a bid to capture all of Aleppo city, which if successful would mark the biggest opposition victory yet in Syria's five-year civil war. But forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are putting up a fierce fight and have begun pouring in reinforcements.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said some 2,000 pro-government fighters from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanese movement Hezbollah had arrived in Aleppo since Sunday evening.

"Both sides are amassing their fighters in preparation for the great battle of Aleppo," said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory.

The Monday edition of al-Watan, a Syrian daily close to the government, reported that the army had received "the necessary military reinforcements to launch the battle to retake the areas from which it withdrew".

It said a military operation by Syria's armed forces was "imminent... and inevitable."

In a statement on Sunday, the Army of Conquest – a group of Islamist militias fighting in Aleppo that does not include Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate the Nusra Front - announced "the start of a new phase to liberate all of Aleppo", pledging to "double the number of fighters for this next battle".

In Istanbul, Syrian National Coalition chief Anas al-Abdeh told the AFP news agency he was confident the whole city could now be taken.

"I think it is just a matter of time. It will happen," he said. "We see very clearly the regime forces are not able to resist."

Washington's UN envoy Samantha Power told the Security Council: "Despite the overwhelming force of the Assad regime, Russian, Iran and Hezbollah on one side, neither side will be able to win a swift or decisive victory in the battle for Aleppo."

 
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.