Syria’s army seized key ground Tuesday in its battle for east Aleppo, capturing more districts and penning rebels into less than a quarter of territory they held in mid-November.
The advance came as Moscow and Washington traded barbs over stalled efforts to end fighting in the city, where forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have made significant advances since last week.
But US Secretary of State John Kerry said he would try to get Syrian peace talks going again with Russia’s help.
On the humanitarian front, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was a “disgrace” that the international community had been unable to alleviate the suffering in east Aleppo.
On Tuesday, government troops retook seven districts including the strategic Shaar neighbourhood and were in control of more than three quarters of former rebel territory in east Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The monitor called Shaar “the most important neighbourhood in the heart of east Aleppo”, and said rebels were being reduced to fighting a “war of attrition”.
The rapid regime gains have left opposition fighters scrambling to defend the shrinking enclave they still control in Aleppo’s southeastern districts.
Despite mounting criticism of the offensive begun on November 15, world powers have struggled to find a way to halt the fighting.
“We have been trying to find a way to get to the negotiating table … but Assad has never shown any willingness,” Kerry said at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.
– Blame game –
“Russia says Assad is ready to come to the table… and I am in favour of putting that to the test,” he said.
Kerry, who has had repeated meetings on Syria with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, said they would meet again on Wednesday or Thursday in Hamburg, Germany.
Even if Aleppo falls, “the war will continue,” Kerry said, stressing that there had to be a negotiated settlement.
Key Assad ally Russia had announced talks with the US in Geneva for Tuesday or Wednesday on organising a rebel withdrawal from Aleppo ahead of a ceasefire.
But on Tuesday, Lavrov accused Washington, which has backed rebel groups against Assad, of backtracking.
“It looks like an attempt to buy time for the rebels to have a breather, take a pause and replenish their reserves,” Lavrov said. Moscow had the impression that “a serious discussion with our American partners isn’t working out”.
Kerry denied any change of plans when asked about Moscow’s allegations.
Washington itself accused Moscow of stalling after Russia and China blocked a UN Security Council resolution on Monday calling for a seven-day ceasefire.
Russia said the resolution should have been postponed until after the Geneva talks, saying an agreement on organising a withdrawal was close.
Syria said it would not agree to any ceasefire without a guarantee of a rebel withdrawal.
“Syria will not leave its citizens in east Aleppo to be held hostage by terrorists, and will exert every effort to liberate them,” said a foreign ministry statement carried by state media.
– ‘A disgrace’ –
The rebels have so far rejected any talk of leaving the city, with Yasser al-Youssef of the leading Nureddin al-Zinki faction calling the proposal “unacceptable”.
Losing Aleppo would be the biggest blow yet to opposition forces in Syria’s civil war, which erupted in 2011 with protests calling for Assad’s ouster.
More than 300,000 people have since died and millions been forced from their homes.
Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial powerhouse, has been a key battleground and suffered some of the war’s worst violence.
Merkel on Tuesday lashed out at the international community’s inability to stop the bloodshed.
“Aleppo is a disgrace,” she told her Christian Democratic Union party in a speech, slamming Russian and Iranian support for the offensive.
“It is a disgrace that we have been unable to establish humanitarian corridors, but we must continue to fight for it,” she said.
The offensive has killed more than 341 people in east Aleppo, including 44 children, the Observatory says.
Rebel fire into the government-held west of the city has killed 81 people, including 31 children, in the same period, it says.
Tens of thousands of east Aleppo residents have fled to different parts of the city, including to government-held areas and other rebel neighbourhoods.
On another front, in northwest Syria, a suspected Russian air strike on Idlib city and province targeting rebel groups killed at least 25 civilians, the Observatory said.
It said 10 people, among them five civilians, were killed in retaliatory rebel fire on pro-regime towns in Idlib.