- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The U.S. must consider a no-fly zone and other aggressive actions to prevent an imminent bloodbath in the besieged rebel-held city of Aleppo by Russian and Syrian government forces, the head of civil defense forces known as the “White Helmets” warned on a Washington visit Tuesday.

Many of the city’s 275,000 civilian residents are “sitting in their homes, waiting to die,” as Russian and Syrian warplanes unleash wave after wave of airstrikes, White Helmets chief Raed al-Saleh said Tuesday.

Since the collapse last Wednesday of the cease-fire deal brokered by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russian and Syrian warplanes have carried out over 1,700 airstrikes on Aleppo alone, Mr. Saleh said during a speech at the Washington D.C.-based Atlantic Council.

SEE ALSO: Airstrikes knock out 2 Aleppo hospitals, medical officials say

Over 1,000 civilians inside Aleppo have been killed since the surge in airstrikes, he said, adding that number may skyrocket over the coming days as local hospitals in the besieged city are operating at capacity and have stopped taking casualties.

The White Helmet volunteers have gained international prominence with their rescue work and efforts to aid the city’s wounded in harrowing conditions, but the result has been their manpower strained by the influx of the injured and being specifically targeted by regime airstrikes.

Mr. Saleh said he feared far more victims will be found as civil defense force volunteers excavate mountains of concrete and rubble that have now come to define the city’s landscape.

The demand for the U.S. and its allies to step up efforts to stop the carnage, including a possible no-fly zone, “is a simple humanitarian demand,” he said. “For [Syrians] we do not care what the mechanism is” to stop the bombing.

His calls for action came amid a new offensive by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad on Aleppo, with the government making steady gains with the backing of Russian airpower in recent months.

Government troops, backed by paramilitary forces from Iran and Lebanon, advanced toward several main thoroughfares into the city, Reuters reported on Tuesday. That assault was coupled with a fresh push by regime forces into eastern portions of the city held by anti-government factions, sparking clashes across rebel-held lines.

The latest offensive in Aleppo was just another brutal reminder of the “humanitarian catastrophe and political disaster” in Syria after five years of bloody civil war, Frederic Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said Tuesday.

It was imperative the Obama White House develop “a real list of options” to “exact a price [for] the civilian-centric terror campaign” being carried out by Moscow and Damascus.

Russia’s entry into the war last year, along with Moscow’s use of so-called bunker-buster munitions and cluster bombs — the latter of which are banned under the international rules of war — has only upped the ante in Syria, Mr. Hof said.

The State Department announced a plan on Tuesday to funnel an additional $364 million in humanitarian aid into Syria, bringing the total aid package delivered into the country to $5.9 billion since the beginning of the war.

But little to no supplied aid has been able to breach the siege lines around Aleppo and other contested regions in the country. Last week a United Nations aid convoy was hit by an airstrike, which U.S. officials insist was likely carried out by Russian or Syrian warplanes,

The death and destruction brought by these weapons down on the Syrian population “with absolute impunity” will continue to stand as a roadblock to any political or diplomatic solution to the worsening crisis, according to Mr. Hof.

“We need to move quickly or there will be hell to pay,” he said.

No-fly zone

Opposition forces control almost half of Aleppo, the only major city where rebels hold such a large area. According to The Associated Press, the U.N. estimates more than 250,000 people live in the rebel-held areas, while more than 1 million are in the government-controlled part that is usually subjected to shelling.

If government forces and their allies capture the rebel-held eastern neighborhoods, military analysts say it would be a turning point in the 5-year-old civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced half of Syria’s population.

But aside from the U.S.-led mission to take out targets tied to the Islamic State in Syria, officials at the Pentagon have been wary on taking sides in the brutal civil war between Mr. Assad and non-Islamic State rebel factions.

But members of the Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday pressed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford on what action could be taken to stem the violence in the country.

Asked by Committee Chairman John McCain about possible military options, the general said any effort to intervene in the Syrian air war could move the U.S. closer to war.

“Right now for us to control all of the airspace in Syria, it would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia,” he said. “That’s a pretty fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going make.”

That said, Gen. Dunford and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told lawmakers that establishment of a marginal no-fly zone would not require that level of control over Syria’s skies.

“We have discussed that issue in the past under certain conditions,” Mr. Carter said of a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone. “The conditions on the ground will change, and we’ll continue to look at those options and make sure they’re available to the president.”

Washington and Moscow had been discussing joint air operations in Syria, under the condition that Russian and Syrian fighters maintained the cease-fire deal.

Military representatives from both sides had agreed to a location for a proposed joint command center to coordinate U.S. and Russian air operations, and were slated to begin face-to-face meetings on other aspects of the deal before talks were terminated in the wake of the airstrike on the U.N. convoy.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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