Men gather their belongings as a damaged car sits at a site
hit by what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal
to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo.
Russia said its ally Syria would soon ship more chemical
weapons abroad for destruction after being accused of dragging
its feet, while activists said civilians in Aleppo were fleeing
deadly barrel bomb raids by President Bashar al-Assad's air
Moscow also said today that the Syrian government would show
up at a new round of peace talks next week, hoping to allay
Western concerns over Assad's commitment to negotiations
which ended inconclusively in Geneva last week.
The diplomatic assurances come as government forces escalate
their assault on Syria's second city of Aleppo, using a near
daily barrage of barrel bombs that some activists say is
forcing residents to flee and slowly gaining ground for the
president against rebel forces weakened by weeks of
While the fall of Aleppo is not seen as imminent, Assad is
keen to control it, together with the capital Damascus and
his heartland along the coast. But the rest of the country
remains fragmented between rebel, Kurds and other armed
Western analysts say Assad's use of indiscriminate weapons
such as barrel bombs and his delaying the process of
eliminating his chemical arsenal suggests he sees little
prospect of the West taking meaningful action against him.
Reuters photographs showed streets packed with Aleppo
residents carrying large packs as they fled the home-made
barrel bombs - oil drums or cylinders packed with explosives
and metal fragments.
Barrel bombs, cheap and easy to construct and usually dropped
from helicopters, often kill dozens at a time. Activists say
they are being used to push people from rebel-held areas into
state-controlled parts of the city.
"In recent days the flight of civilians has intensified and
the regime has made some small gains," said Rami Abdelrahman,
head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a
pro-opposition monitoring group.
"The main aid to their advance has been the rebel
The reported gains by Assad's forces are small. But if they
build on them and take the rebel-held part of Syria's former
business hub, it would be a huge blow to the opposition,
forcing it back into the northern and eastern countryside and
leaving it without a major presence in either of the two
Other opposition sources deny government advances. Media
access in Syria is severely limited by violence and
government restrictions, making conflicting accounts
difficult to verify.
Syria's civil war has killed more than 130,000 people and
forced over 6 million from their homes.
Russia and the United States, aligned to Assad and the rebels
respectively, have been deadlocked and unable to ease the
violence. But they joined forces to launch the Geneva peace
negotiations which began two weeks ago. The first round
produced few results, but a second starts next week.
Preparations for the talks took place in tandem with a deal
to remove Syria's chemical weapons, agreed a month after a
poison gas attack in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21 which
killed hundreds. The deal allowed Assad to escape U.S.-led
Syria has failed to meet its deadline to eliminate all
chemical agents by next week, but Russia said the government
would be able to complete the removal by March 1.
"Literally yesterday the Syrians announced that the removal
of a large shipment of chemical substances is planned in
February. They are ready to complete this process by March
1," said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov,
according to the state-run Russian news agency RIA.
In Washington, U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper said
there appeared little chance rebels would soon overthrow
"The prospects are right now that (Assad) is actually in a
strengthened position than when we discussed this last year,
by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons, as
slow as that process has been," said Clapper, who is director
of national intelligence.
Testifying to the House of Representatives intelligence
committee, he did not say why the agreement had boosted
The delay in removing chemical weapons has prompted Western
criticism that Damascus was seeking to gain leverage during
the peace talks. Russia says those concerns are overblown and
rejects claims that the move is deliberate, while Syria has
blamed security concerns for the delay.
Russia also hosted on Tuesday the leader of the opposition's
National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, for the first time since the
three-year-old conflict began.
Jarba spoke positively despite Moscow's support for Assad.
"We now have good relations with Russia," he said. "The
Russian side now understands the position of our Coalition
Moscow wants to persuade the Coalition-led delegation at
Geneva to include more moderate internal opposition groups,
which rebels argue are Assad stooges.
Jarba excluded any groups that had been prepared "in the
basements of the regime's security service". "There will be
nobody in the opposition delegation to Geneva who is tied to
the regime this way or another," he said.
On the ground in Syria, Assad's forces are pushing for gains
in the north, where rebels hold swathes of territory, and
central Syria, which links to the capital Damascus and the
president's stronghold on the coast.
Like many parts of Syria, Aleppo is divided between rebel and
Assad forces in a stalemate that has lasted over a year,
killing hundreds with little change in the balance of power.
But the rebel hold on Aleppo, Syria's largest city, has been
weakened after an alliance of Islamist and secular rebel
groups tried to force out a radical al Qaeda splinter group,
the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The infighting alone has killed more than 2,300 rebels in the
"The regime advances are very small, but it seems they want
to repeat the strategy used in the suburbs outside Damascus
and Homs - they want to loop around the rebel areas and put
them under siege," said one Aleppo activist, who asked not to
be named because he said rebels were trying to suppress
information about army advances.
Assad's forces have been using siege tactics, sometimes for
months on end, to drain rebel held areas of food and
The Aleppo activist voiced frustration that Western powers,
long wary of radical Islamists, had not come to help rebels
now fighting both Assad and ISIL. "No one will help us.
Aleppo has been home to civilizations for centuries and it's
now being destroyed, stone by stone."