BEIRUT/DAMASCUS – The Syrian regime continued its aerial bombardment in the north for the ninth straight day Monday, decimating buildings across the already war-ravaged city of Aleppo. Some activists say the province’s death toll has grown by more than 300 in a matter of days.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition said it would not attend planned peace talks this month in Geneva if the bombing continues.
The “barrel bombs” — packed with explosives, nails and other shrapnel — that regime forces are dropping from helicopters over rebel-held areas of Aleppo and neighboring provinces are far cruder than the chemical weapons that the United States and other Western powers are currently trying to ferry out of the country to destroy. But the barrel bombs are just as imprecise and unpredictable, killing rebel forces and civilians alike, and the fear they provoke is just as intense, activists and rebel fighters say.
“The helicopters haven’t left the skies of Aleppo for the last 10 days,” said Yasser al-Ahmed, a fighter with the Free Syrian Army, who spoke via Skype from the heart of Aleppo as helicopters dropped more explosives-packed oil drums Monday.
If the world’s reaction has been more muted about the barrel bombs, he added with a note of bitter sarcasm, it is probably because chemical weapons are “internationally banned, whereas explosive barrels must be licensed to [President Bashar] Assad because he invented them.”
Syrian National Coalition Secretary-General Badr Jamous said, “If the bombing the Assad regime is carrying out and its attempt to annihilate the Syrian people continue, then the coalition will not go to Geneva.”
Jamous said Jarba had been in touch with the British and French foreign ministers to tell them about the “daily attacks carried out by the Assad regime using explosive barrels and warplanes, causing dozens of victims. If countries cannot put pressure on the regime to stop these operations of destruction . . . how are they going to pressure the regime at Geneva Two to obtain a political solution?”
The talks are aimed at getting agreement on a political transition to end the war, which has claimed an estimated 126,000 lives since March 2011 and displaced millions.
Local fighters and activists said heavy shelling continued inside Aleppo, its suburbs and in at least three other towns in that province on Monday, including one where Syrians had sought refuge near the Turkish border.
Video posted online by activists over the weekend showed men running about the smoking gray rubble that was once a cityscape as they hauled mangled bodies and body parts into battered vans.
In an Al-Jazeera broadcast Monday, men in civilian clothes held up a large circle of metal amid the rubble, shouting: “This is the barrel, this is the barrel — can you see it? May God take revenge for what is happening here” as dusty ambulances screamed past them.
Some of the black barrel bombs fail to detonate on impact, becoming mines in the rubble that rescue workers sift through as they try to remove the wounded and the dead.
Two major narratives have flowed from the international news coverage of Syria’s civil war in recent weeks.
One portraying the ongoing struggle by Western diplomats to bring the nation’s warring parties to the negotiating table in Geneva next month for what U.N. officials hope will mark the first real peace talks in the country’s nearly three-year conflict, as well as the joint international efforts to destroy the regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
The other narrative is born of gruesome images and sounds — the videos, pictures and phone calls that have helped to illustrate a cold and increasingly bleak battlefield inside Aleppo, where banished chemical weapons stocks and forthcoming peace talks matter little.
“They live in a parallel world,” Ahmed, the rebel fighter, said of those who may show up to the negotiating table in Switzerland.
Activists and fighters say the government has stepped up its assault on rebels and civilians ahead of the planned Geneva talks.
“The situation is horrendous,” said Sasha Ghosh Siminoff, a co-founder of the U.S.-based activist group People Demand Change, which monitors events in Syria. “They have never dropped this many barrel bombs at once on one area this consistently.”
In the Aleppo suburb of Marjeh, government helicopters struck the same busy square of a poor neighborhood at least three times Monday, said Hassoun Abu Faisal, a spokesman for the Aleppo Media Center, a local activist group. But the intensity of the bombings has made it “impossible to keep an accurate statistic going,” he said. “And many of the bodies come in extremely disfigured or are just body parts that we can’t use to identify a person.”
“The regime is saying, ‘We can shell wherever we want, whenever we want,’ ” Abu Faisal said. “It seems like Geneva Two,” he said, referring to the peace talks, “is not for us.”
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said Monday that the government was continuing to obliterate “terrorists’ dens.” The Assad regime characterizes all of the nation’s rebel fighters as terrorists.
The Aleppo Media Center on Sunday released a list of 93 people who it said were killed by barrel bombs in Aleppo on that day alone, Abu Faisal said. But just after midnight, “that number became a hundred.” By Monday afternoon, he said he had no idea what the toll was.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 1,460 people were killed in violence nationwide during the past week.
Heavy clashes also broke out Monday between government forces and rebels around Aleppo province’s two majority-Shiite towns, Nebl and Zahra, examples of how the conflict has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones. Syria’s rebels are mostly Sunni Muslims, while Assad’s government is dominated by Alawites, members of a Shiite offshoot sect. Islamist rebel groups vowed last week to attack Aleppo’s Shiite majority towns if the air raids did not let up. On Monday, they followed through, the Observatory said.
Activists said a stream of residents had fled Aleppo — a city already balkanized into government-controlled and rebel-controlled neighborhoods, and emptied of much of its population — to seek cover in surrounding villages and countryside, where the displaced who can afford it burn used “waste fuel” for heat.
The Syrian opposition coalition in Istanbul renewed its long-standing call for a no-fly zone on Sunday. “A no-fly zone, backed by the Western powers, is the only means to prevent the Assad regime from slaughtering the Syrian people,” the group said in a news release.
“The shocking atrocities taking place in Aleppo show that the regime itself is a weapon of mass destruction,” said the coalition’s chief of staff, Monzer Akbir, according to the statement. “Unless Assad’s warplanes are stopped, the humanitarian disaster, regional instability, and the rise of extremism will only continue to get worse.”