In Brief

Syria 'planning a new chemical attack', US claims

White House warns President Bashar al-Assad he will 'pay a heavy price' if strike goes ahead

Syria debate: Aleppo bombings a 'war against children'

11 October

Former Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb called the latest bombings in Aleppo a "war against children", as MPs held an emergency debate on the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.

Crabb, the MP for Pembrokeshire who stood in the Conservative Party leadership election this year, said: "Almost half of the casualties since the current attacks began have been children as bombs and mortars have landed on hospitals and broken through underground bunkers which sometimes also serve as schools.

"The images that we should hold before us are the ones we've seen over the last fortnight of the lifeless, dusty, broken-limbed bodies of children being removed from bombed out buildings and piles of rubble."

The debate was requested by Tory MP Andrew Mitchell, who said the humanitarian position in Aleppo and across Syria had "deteriorated significantly".

Aleppo has faced "unprecedented bombing since an internationally brokered ceasefire collapsed three weeks ago", says The Independent. Last month, a United Nations convoy was attacked, killing 18 workers and destroying trucks loaded with food and medicines.

"This is undoubtedly a war crime and it was undoubtedly perpetrated by Russian forces," said Mitchell.

The former international development secretary likened the events to the behaviour of the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy prior to World War II.

"Russia is shredding the international rules-based system of law, destroying the United Nations and its ability to act in the same way that the Germans and the Italians destroyed the League of Nations in the 1930s," he told the Commons.

During today's debate, Ann Clwyd, the Labour MP for Cynon Valley, called for demonstrations outside the Russian Embassy until the bombing in Aleppo stopped, while Toby Perkins said it was "ludicrous" the World Cup was being held in Russia in 2018 given its record.

There is a growing divide between the West and Russia over Moscow's military aid to Syrian President Bashar Assad, despite Russia's claims it is targeting terrorists.

Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin cancelled a visit to Paris after French President Francois Hollande called the Aleppo bombings a "war crime".

Syria: Trump and Pence at odds over military action

10 October

As the bloody civil war rages on across Syria, the next potential president of the US has publicly disagreed with his second-in-command on how to solve the humanitarian crisis.

Speaking during yesterday's debate, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump directly contradicted views held by his running mate, Indiana governor Mike Pence.

Last week, Pence said a Trump administration would create a safe zone in Syria, meet Russian provocations with "strength" and use force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's troops if necessary.

The US "should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo", he said.

But Trump last night said that the pair "disagree" on this crucial foreign policy issue. During the debate, the Republican candidate said "Russia is killing [Islamic State]. Syria is fighting IS."

Trump "indicated that he didn't think that Russia was part of the problem in the war-torn country", CNN reports. "Instead, he said that Russia is fighting [IS], a conclusion that is not shared by US intelligence agencies, the Obama administration or US allies."

The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, said it was "remarkable" that a candidate and his running mate "should so publicly feud, especially on an issue as important as Syria" during a presidential campaign.

The Indiana governor has also refused to defend Trump following the release of sexually aggressive comments the Republican made, which were recorded in 2005.

The Indy Star cited sources that suggest Pence could pull out of the race if the presidential candidate performed badly in the debate, but his team has since confirmed he will remain on the ticket.

Meanwhile, Russian and Syrian war planes continue to bombard the besieged city of Aleppo, with the death toll soaring on a daily basis. The French government described the bombings as war crimes and said it was approaching the International Criminal Court to see if an investigation could be launched.

Islamic State 'severing children's limbs in Syria' 

7 October

Families who have managed to escape Raqqa, Islamic State's de facto capital in Syria, have said the terrorist group has been seen severing the limbs of men, women and children in public.

One mother told Sky News she had witnessed the group amputating the hand off an 11-year-old boy, an orphan caught trying to sell a stolen car battery for food.

"They used a sword. They put a block of wood underneath his hand," she said. "They said this hand has stolen and he had to be punished and they cut his hand off."

The amputation was witnessed by her young children, who were friends with the boy. "The children now have nightmares and find it hard to sleep," says the broadcaster.

Reports of public executions, torture and rape have streamed out Syria – and especially Raqqa – since Islamic State militants took over swathes of territory in 2014.

Last month, the US and Turkey discussed plans to drive them from their stronghold. "Our ultimate objective is to liberate Raqqa from IS control," the US State Department said.

Syrian troops began surrounding areas close to the city earlier this year as part of the military's plan to recapture the city, with all sides gearing up for battle.

"There are growing signs of tension among the fundamentalists in the city - and an increase in people attempting to flee," Sky News's Alex Crawford reported from the Turkey-Syria border.

"There are reports too that IS fighters are building tunnels in expectation of a tremendous battle to try to retake the Syrian city."

Will Syria and Iraq lose land to warring factions?

6 October

Fears are growing that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq will lead to both countries being permanently divided.

Former CIA director David Petraeus has warned that Syria in particular will never operate as a single state again.

The war ravaged country was "a geo-political Chernobyl", he said, and the most likely outcome of the devastating civil war would be the country separating into autonomous regions individually led by President Bashar Assad, the Kurds and other warring factions.

"It's increasingly appearing likely that Syria may not be able to be put back together again - Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again, I am not sure you can piece him back together," he told Sky News.

Even achieving a lasting ceasefire would be a "herculean" effort, added Petraeus: "Without a military context that gives incentives to Assad and indeed his Russian supporters to agree to this, I think that the prospects for that are unlikely."

There is a similarly bleak situation in Iraq, where the Kurdish Peshmerga army said it intends to keep the territory its troops captured from Islamic State.

"We are not extending the territories, we're just regaining what was originally ours," Masrour Barzani, the Kurdish regional government's national security chief, told Sky News.

The broadcaster describes the Kurdish fighters as "lightly-armed, ferociously brave, and vital to the American-led international coalition's war against IS".

Peshmerga forces are currently preparing to take part in the imminent battle for Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, which has been under IS control for more than two years.

"Resettled ethnic Arabs have competing claims to areas now behind the front lines the Kurds insist they will not withdraw from," says Sky. "This has created suspicions that they may try to seize more territory during the final stages of the Mosul campaign."

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi asked the Kurds not to use the war to expand their territory and instead focus on defeating IS.

"The aim of the battle should not be territorial conflicts but to free the citizens from the persecution of [IS]," he said.

Syria: Children in 'living nightmare' after hospital attacks

29 September

Air strikes have hit eastern Aleppo's two largest hospitals in an offensive that one health official called "catastrophic and unprecedented in modern history".

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad, backed by Russia, are taking part in an all-out assault to retake the city. 

"You cannot imagine what we see every day: children who are coming to us as body parts," nurse Bara'a told The Guardian. "Why are Syria's children being forgotten?"

Justin Forsyth, the deputy chief executive director of Unicef, said: "The children of Aleppo are trapped in a living nightmare." The charity estimates at least 96 children have been killed and 223 injured since a ceasefire broke down last Friday.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon appeared to condemn Russia and the Syrian regime when he told a Security Council briefing: "They know they are committing war crimes… Imagine a slaughterhouse. This is worse."

Bashar Jaafari, Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, has sparked outrage after laughing when asked by Al Jazeera's James Bays if his country's military had bombed the two hospitals.

"Whether that was a laugh of contempt or glee or whether it was just a nervous laugh, [it] was quite an extraordinary reaction when his government is accused of war crimes," Bays said.

The New York Times says Russia's role in the attacks - coming on the day a report concluded the missile that shot down a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine in July 2014 came from Russia - means President Vladimir Putin is fast turning his country into an outlaw nation. Russia denies having any part in the MH17 attack.

However, the NYT concludes his "unconscionable behaviour" suggests "the furthest thing from his mind is becoming a constructive partner in the search for peace".

Syria: Russia accused of war crimes 

26 September

Britain's ambassador to the United Nations yesterday accused Russia of carrying out war crimes in Syria.

Matthew Rycroft,speaking at an emergency session of the Security Council, said the Russian government and Syrian President Bashar Assad were involved in the killing of innocent civilians following an airstrike on an aid convoy in Aleppo last week that left 20 people dead.

The Kremlin has denied responsibility for the attack, blaming it on rebels or US drones. Washington says Russian warplanes were behind the strike, but it is unclear if the convoy was deliberately targeted.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made similar statements on the BBC's The Andrew Marr Show yesterday, saying Russia could be guilty of a war crime if there is evidence it carried out the attack.

"[Russian President Vladimir] Putin's regime is not just handing Assad the revolver, he is in some instances firing the revolver. The Russians themselves are actually engaged," he said.

Meanwhile, fighting in Aleppo is continuing to escalate, with the city experiencing intense shelling over the weekend as government forces attempted to recapture rebel-held areas.

According to the BBC, "the northern city has become a key battleground in Syria's bloody five-year civil war". 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 25 people were killed in shelling on Saturday alone.

Syrian army starts new offensive in Aleppo

23 September

The Syrian military has declared a new offensive in eastern Aleppo, as an activist warned the bombing was "annihilating" the city.

A quarter of a million people are living under siege in the rebel-held territory. Army officials told state media civilians should avoid areas where "terrorists" were operating.

But Ammar al-Selmo, the head of the civil defence rescue service in east Aleppo, told Reuters: "What's happening now is annihilation."

Witnesses reported seeing a team of five aircraft in the skies this morning, with bombing waves targeting the east of the city.

Video footage shows entire streets in the Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood on fire, while incendiary munitions continue to fall from the sky.

Military jets began pounding rebel positions in the city on Wednesday night, after the collapse of the week-old truce. At least 13 people are said to have been killed, with some reports putting the figure as high as 45.

Speaking on Syrian state media, officials claimed exit points were available for anyone, including rebels, who wanted to escape.

The attacks have put paid to any hopes of the ceasefire being renewed. Talks had been taking place between the US and Russia in New York, but broke up without progress.

Aleppo, home to 250,000 people, has been under government siege since September. Rebels have held the city since 2012.

Syrian President Bashar Assad denies bombing civilians in the city and blames the West for much of the destruction.

US holds Russia responsible for air strike on aid convoy

21 September

Washington has reached the preliminary conclusion that Russia is directly responsible for an airstrike on a UN aid convoy that claimed the lives of at least 20 people in northern Syria. 

Two US officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said two Russian Sukhoi Su-24 warplanes were in the sky above the convoy at the exact time it was struck on Monday.

White House spokesman Ben Rhodes said there could only have been two entities that carried out the attack: "Either the Syrian regime or the Russian government."

He added: "In any event, we hold the Russian government responsible for air strikes in this space."

UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon used his farewell address to the general assembly to deliver a scathing assessment of the bombing, denouncing it as "a sickening, savage and apparently deliberate attack".

He added: "Just when you think it cannot get any worse, the bar of depravity sinks lower."

The UN has suspended aid operations in the region.

Russia "strongly denies involvement of its own or Syrian planes" and claims the incident that destroyed 18 out of 31 aid lorries was caused by "fire on the ground and not by an air strike", the BBC reports.

However, rescue workers in the region have told journalists that "missiles pounded the area for hours", The Guardian says.

UN aid convoys in Syria suspended after air strike

20 September

The UN has suspended all aid convoys in Syria after its trucks were hit by an air strike while delivering food relief to a rebel-held area near Aleppo.

As many as 12 aid workers and drivers were killed, including the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Omar Barakat, says CBS News.

The attack came just hours after the Syrian government declared on state media that the US-Russian brokered ceasefire had expired.

The UN reported that at least 18 of the 31 trucks were destroyed by a series of missiles, fired by "either Syrian or Russian aircraft".

Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, said: "Our outrage at this attack is enormous... The convoy was the outcome of a long process of permission and preparations to assist isolated civilians."

UN aid chief Stephen O'Brien had even stronger words, calling for an investigation into the attack. "Let me be clear: if this callous attack is found to be a deliberate targeting of humanitarians, it would amount to a war crime," he said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said the Syrian regime was "evidently responsible" as it and Russia "both knew where the convoy started and where it was going".

Infographic by statista.com for TheWeek.co.uk.

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