People digging in the rubble in a search for survivors at a site hit by an airstrike in the rebel-held Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo on Thursday. Since last week, about 200 airstrikes have pummelled neighbourhoods in eastern Aleppo. Reuters pic

Aleppo has seen intense fighting recently between rebels and the Russian-backed Syrian government forces. The battle for Aleppo, Syria’s second but largest city, has been going on for four years and is regarded as the turning point of the war, should one side succeed.

The city is one of the few major urban areas in the war-torn country to be held partially by the rebels. Before the war, the city was Syria’s great financial and industrial centre, and it thus represents a key strategic and psychological ground.

As long as the rebels hold parts of the city, it remains a thorn in the government’s side.

In August, the very last practising doctors in the city had urged United States President Barack Obama to come to the aid of the 250,000 civilians there.

A letter signed by 15 physicians warned that “if attacks on medical facilities continue at the present rate, there could be none left within a month”.

Five years into the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, doctors have borne witness as countless patients, friends and colleagues suffered violent, tormented deaths.

They say that in the past month, there have been 42 attacks on medical facilities, 15 of them on hospitals where they work.

They recall seeing newborn babies gasping for air suffocate to death after a  blast cut the oxygen supply to their incubators.

“Gasping for air, their lives ended before they had really begun.”

The situation has now worsened when an aid convoy in Aleppo was hit by airstrikes again last week.

Eighteen lorries and a warehouse were destroyed with 20 civilians, including aid workers, killed.

This aftermath has now led to the biggest fear of all: The United Nations humanitarian aid agency suspending all aid convoys in Syria, mourning a “very dark day” for humanitarians.

“All parties to the conflict” had been notified about the convoy, which was “clearly marked” as humanitarian aid. The aid was supposed to serve the urgent need for at least 250,000 sufferers.

UN officials have commented that there can be no explanation or excuse, no reason or rationale for waging war on brave and selfless humanitarian workers.

“If this callous attack is found to be a deliberate targeting of humanitarians, it would amount to a war crime,” said a UN official.

The Syrian government has stepped up strikes on rebel-held areas of the city since a ceasefire collapsed last week.

The ceasefire was a result of months of diplomatic wrangling between the US and Russia that should help end the war in Syria.

However, the ceasefire has unravelled to become a darker period for the Syrian crisis.

Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moalem has optimistically said that government forces are making great strides against “terrorism”. Syria refers to all rebel groups, including the Kurdish forces and so-called Islamic State militants that are trying to overthrow the Syrian president, as terrorists.

Russian air force, which is backing Assad’s forces, has been alleged to contribute to the intensification of airstrikes. The ultimate goal is to siege Syrians in Aleppo, who cannot escape nor receive assistance, to surrender.

The US, of course, accuses Russia of “barbarism”, but Russia continues to deny carrying out attacks against the aid trucks, claiming that a rebel shelling or a US drone was responsible.

The head of the UN Ban Ki-moon is “appalled by the chilling military escalation” in Aleppo and “acknowledged the international community’s failure”.

He was alarmed by reports of air strikes involving incendiary weapons and bunker-busting bombs that have killed mainly civilians.

“The Syrian tragedy shames us all. The collective failure of the international community should haunt every member of this council,” he was reported to have said.

Air raids are now worse than before the ceasefire went into effect. Since last week, about 200 airstrikes have pummelled neighbourhoods in eastern Aleppo.

Rescue teams are still working to extract people from the rubble. Humanitarian crews reported that approximately half of the casualties pulled from the rubble were children.

Bloodied toddlers continue to wail on hospital beds.

Civil defence volunteers, known as White Helmets, frantically searched for those trapped in the rubble of demolished buildings, often with bare hands.

“They are incapable of extracting them from underneath the rubble due to the intense airstrikes.”

During a rescue operation overnight Friday into Saturday, at least five members of the White Helmets were injured. One of those hurt is in critical condition.

Intensified attacks have also left nearly two million people without water. The need for water has been used as a psychological weapon of war by all sides.

Unicef, the UN children’s agency, has warned that recently fierce air strikes stopped repairs to a damaged water-pumping station supplying rebel-held eastern districts of the city with at least 200,000 people.

In retaliation, nearby station pumping water to the west of Aleppo, upwards to 1.5 million people, has been switched off.

Residents now have to resort to contaminated water with risk of waterborne diseases.

Syria’s civil war, which is in its sixth year, has so far claimed the lives of more than 400,000 people and millions more have been internally displaced.

As US-Russian diplomacy withers and all sides of the war continue to pound key battleground cities such as Aleppo, the world has yet to see a “new height of horror” for its people.

Dr. Paridah Abd. Samad is a former lecturer of UiTM, Shah Alam, and International Islamic University Malaysia (UIA), Gombak

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