The Syrian army’s advance in Aleppo slowed on Thursday but a victory was still firmly in sight after President Bashar al-Assad vowed that retaking the nation’s second city would change the course of the six-year civil war in his favor
Lightning gains in recent days in which government forces and their allies recaptured Aleppo’s historic Old City lost some momentum in the face of stiff rebel resistance but the Syrian leadership was confident.
Assad has long sought to seize divided Aleppo which would put him in control of Syria’s major cities, the south, central spine and western flank bordering the Mediterranean, dealing a devastating blow to rebels who have fought to unseat him.
Outside of Aleppo, the government and its allies are also putting severe pressure on remaining rebel redoubts. Assad said in an interview with a Syrian newspaper that victory in Aleppo would be a landmark, but not the end of the war.
The rebels on Wednesday called for an immediate five-day ceasefire and the evacuation of civilians and wounded, but gave no indication they were ready to withdraw, as demanded by Damascus and its ally Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday that Russian and U.S. experts would meet in Geneva on Saturday to discuss the situation in Aleppo, Moscow’s RIA news agency reported.
It also cited him as saying that the Syrian army had stopped active military operations in Aleppo to facilitate an effort to remove civilians. Reuters reporters in the city said bombardment could still be heard after Lavrov’s comments were published.
“We are close to reaching an understanding, but I want to warn against high expectations,” the Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said after meeting Lavrov in Hamburg that he was not confident but “hopeful” about reaching an agreement, and was still waiting for “certain feedback and input” from Moscow.
The White House said it would adopt a “wait and see” approach on whether Russia helps cease military operations.
The U.N. assessment for a possible deal, which would see civilian evacuations from besieged rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo and help aid delivery, was bleak.
Russia and the United States were “poles apart” in trying to agree on terms for evacuations from east Aleppo, U.N. Syria humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said.
Five months of talks over aid plans all failed and produced “nothing”, Egeland said, adding it was up to Moscow and Washington to agree an evacuation from east Aleppo, where the U.N. Syria envoy said more than 100,000 people may be living.
More than 800 people have been killed and 3,000-3,500 wounded in eastern Aleppo in the past 26 days, while the remaining trapped civilians await an effective death sentence, the president of Aleppo local council said.