Bashar al-Assad sees Trump as ‘natural ally’ as Syrian and Russian strikes batter Aleppo hospital

Aleppo has been divided between rebel and government control since 2012 along one of the most intractable front lines of the civil war

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 November, 2016, 1:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 November, 2016, 7:11am

Air strikes hammered rebel-held zones in Syria’s besieged Aleppo on Wednesday, badly damaging a children’s hospital as staff members and patients huddled in a basement, doctors said.

The attacks came a day after Syrian government forces and their Russian allies resumed offensives across northern Syria, including Russian cruise missile strikes from a warship in the Mediterranean. Syrian forces, meanwhile, launched heavy bombardment in rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo in an attempt to break one of the last urban strongholds of the opposition.

The planes are up above. We can’t get out. Maybe we can protect ourselves in this room
Hatem, director of children’s hospital

Loss of the rebel footholds in Aleppo would be a major blow to armed factions and others fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It could also hasten the fall of their remaining strongholds across the country.

Staff at the children’s facility in Aleppo’s al-Shaar neighborhood said they were hiding in the basement, counting the bombs above their heads. The young patients and their parents cowered alongside in one of the few hospitals still operating in rebel-held parts of Aleppo.

East Aleppo’s central blood bank, located near the hospital, also was hit in the raids, residents said.

Russia said Tuesday that it had launched a major offensive against rebel-held areas in Idlib and Homs provinces, but denied involvement in the new attacks on Aleppo.

Assad, for his part, insists his forces were fighting to liberate civilians from “terrorists”. Assad also identified US President-elect Donald Trump as a possible “natural ally”, if he turned out to be “genuine” about his commitment to fighting terror in Syria.

Trump said he was ready to work with Assad to fight against Islamic State in Syria, in the run-up to last week’s US presidential election.

Once Syria’s economic powerhouse, Aleppo has been divided between rebel and government control since 2012 along one of the most intractable front lines of the war. Its recapture by Assad’s forces could hasten the collapse of the armed opposition across northern Syria.

Speaking from the basement of the children’s hospital, its director – who identified himself only as Hatem – said his staff were trapped.

“The planes are up above. We can’t get out. Maybe we can protect ourselves in this room,” said Hatem, who gave only one name in fear of possible reprisals against his family.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said on Wednesday that at least 17 civilians were killed in the first 24 hours of the government offensive. Residents said an ambulance driver was among the dead, underscoring the dangers facing rescue workers who venture out to save lives.

Video footage from the al-Shaar area appeared to show the aftermath of fierce bombardment. Fires licked the edge of cars and buildings, and air was filled with dust.

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The Independent Doctors Association, a non-profit group, said the children’s hospital had been badly damaged. It was the fifth attack on a medical facility in the space of three days. The US condemned those attacks on Tuesday, calling them violations of international humanitarian law.

East Aleppo is surrounded by an array of government-allied forces – including Syrian troops and Iran-backed militias – and its supply routes have been cut. The UN said last week that aid workers in the area had handed out the last of their food stockpiles.

On Wednesday, a Syrian state-owned television channel, Ikhabariyah, reported large troop deployments along several main fronts in Aleppo. It claimed their assault was imminent and that “zero hour” would soon begin.

Additional reporting by Associated Press