Fighting Escalates In Syria Ahead Of Peace Conference

The Syrian military is dumping explosives on the city of Aleppo. In recent days, both sides have escalated their campaigns trying to gain ground ahead of an international peace conference scheduled for January. Calls for a cease fire have gone unheeded as the humanitarian crisis within and beyond Syria's borders worsens.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Activists in Syria say the most intense bombardment of that country's civil war is now in its fourth day. Government aircraft are dumping barrels packed with explosives on the city of Aleppo. Close to 200 people have been killed in the assault so far, according to the group Doctors Without Borders.

Government and rebel forces have stepped up their campaigns in recent days trying to gain ground in advance of an international peace conference. Renewed calls for a cease fire are going unheeded. We're going to check in on the conflict with NPR's Deborah Amos who's monitoring events from Beirut.

And Deb, let's start with what's going on in the northwestern city of Aleppo. Witnesses are describing terrifying attacks by aircraft using these barrel bombs. What more can you tell us about what's going on there?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Melissa, the Syrian air force is mostly a helicopter force and this is a crude weapon, barrel bombs. What they are is large oil drums packed with explosives and then scraps of metal, nails, something like 50 of these things hit across Aleppo. The damage is extensive and you can see that in the videos that have been posted by activists in the city.

They report that a school was hit, a college dormitory, buildings have been flattened. In fact, one of these barrel bombs landed in a busy roundabout, a busy traffic place in the middle of the city so there's been almost 200 people killed. That is a record. Even more injured overwhelming the clinics in the rebel-held areas.

BLOCK: And is it clear here, Deborah, that the targets are civilians, that they're targeting the civilian populations of Aleppo? What's the strategy?

AMOS: Well, the timing could be that the U.S. policy towards the rebels is in disarray. Last week, the U.S. suspended even non-lethal aid to the rebels so this is the time to strike. We have also seen, throughout this conflict, that the regime punishes the people who support the rebels. The idea is they will turn against armed groups.

What is striking is the intensity. There was a report in Jane's Magazine online today out of London that offers defense and military analysis. They were citing Turkish armed forces sources. The regime air force is flying 100 sorties a day and striking rebel areas with ballistic missiles on a daily basis. That is really a striking change in the intensity of these assaults.

BLOCK: And there's also fighting closer to the capital, Damascus. Tell us about that.

AMOS: Over the past few days, the rebels, and I'm talking about the most radical of the rebel groups, those linked to al-Qaida, have been taking the fight to towns where they find supporters of the government. In a small town called Adra, it's close to the capital north, rebels from the Nusra Front went door to door, according to residents, and killed civilians, minority Alawites and Druze and it was a very, very bloody time in Adra.

BLOCK: When they're targeting people going door to door, Deborah, how do they know, how do these rebel groups know that the civilians that they're singling out for punishment were supporters of the government, were Alawites?

AMOS: They actually don't. But the people that they choose to kill do have ID cards and all Syrians have one. It says where they were born, what their last names are and from that, you can tell if a Syrian is an Alawite or a Druze. The communities of Alawites and Druze support the government, but not these individuals.

So today, the Syrian army has largely retaken Adra and they driven those rebels out, but people there are still reeling from what happened.

BLOCK: So in the end, the rebels couldn't hold this town.

AMOS: No, but the point, according to analysts is, is to show government supporters that government forces can't protect them. In a way, it's the mirror strategy that we see of the bombing of civilians in Aleppo. But over the past few days of the fighting, the regime has demonstrated superiority in the air. Now, both sides are jockeying for territory ahead of these peace talks.

According to analysts, the idea is to be in the strongest possible position to dictate terms, even for Islamist rebels who reject peace talks at all. So this upsurge in violence was widely predicted when the date for a conference was announced. The U.S. and the Russians seemed very seriously committed to making it happen, but these talks are going to be over a divided devastated country, partly controlled by the regime and partly by the rebels.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Deborah Amos reporting on Syria from Beirut. Deborah, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you.

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