BEIRUT — Even as international powers are moving to destroy its chemical weapons, Syria’s government has turned to crude “barrel bombs” in a concentrated attack on the country’s largest city and surrounding towns, apparently looking to press its advantage ahead of planned peace talks.
The aerial bombardment of northern Syria continued for a ninth day Monday, pulverizing buildings across the already ravaged city of Aleppo and adding to the province’s death toll.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday that at least 364 people have been killed, including 105 children. That number was expected to rise as attacks continued Tuesday and volunteer rescue workers struggled to recover and identify bodies.
The barrel bombs are oil drums packed with explosives, nails and other shrapnel. They are dropped by helicopters and are far simpler than the chemical weapons that the United States and other Western powers are trying to ferry out of the country. But they are also imprecise, killing rebel forces and civilians alike, and the fear they provoke is almost as intense, activists and rebel fighters say.
“The helicopters haven’t left the skies of Aleppo for the last 10 days,” said Yasser al-Ahmed, a fighter with the rebel Free Syrian Army, who spoke Monday via Skype from the heart of the city.
The intense attacks prompted expressions of alarm Monday from the U.S. and British governments. “The United States condemns the ongoing air assault by Syrian government forces on civilians,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. He added that Syrian forces were using Scud missiles and barrel bombs in and around Aleppo.
Local fighters and activists said the bombs rained down Monday on Aleppo, its suburbs and at least three other towns in the province, including one near the Turkish border where Syrians fleeing bombardment had sought refuge.
Video posted online by activists over the weekend showed despairing men running about the smoldering gray rubble that was once a cityscape, shouting “God is great” as they hauled the mangled bodies and limbs of Aleppo’s newly dead into battered vans.
An Al Jazeera broadcast Monday showed men in civilian clothes holding up a large circle of metal amid the rubble as ambulances screamed past them. “This is the barrel, this is the barrel — can you see it?” they shouted. “May God take revenge for what is happening here.”
Activists said some of the black barrel bombs have failed to detonate on impact and instead act as mines in the debris that rescue workers have to sift through.
Although President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has used barrel bombs in the past, activists said, it has not done so with such intensity.
Much of the recent international news coverage of Syria’s civil war has focused on diplomacy: the struggle to bring the nation’s warring parties to the negotiating table in Geneva next month for what U.N. officials hope will mark the first real peace talks in the nearly three-year-old conflict, as well as international efforts to destroy the regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
But another narrative is unfolding in Syria, one of gruesome images and sounds conveyed to the outside world by videos, pictures and phone calls. To rebels such as Ahmed who are fighting in the bleak battlefield around Aleppo, negotiations over chemical weapons stocks and peace talks matter little.
“They live in a parallel world,” he said of those expected to show up at the negotiating table.
Activists and fighters say the government has stepped up its assault on rebels and civilians ahead of the Geneva talks.
“The situation is horrendous,” said Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, co-founder of People Demand Change, a U.S.-based activist group that monitors events in Syria. “They have never dropped this many barrel bombs at once on one area this consistently,” he wrote in an e-mail.
In the Aleppo suburb of Marjeh, government helicopters struck the same busy square of a poor neighborhood at least three times Monday, said Hassoun Abu Faisal, a spokesman for the Aleppo Media Center, a local activist group. But the intensity of the bombings has made it “impossible to keep an accurate statistic going,” he said. “And many of the bodies come in extremely disfigured, or are just body parts that we can’t use to identify a person.”
“The regime is saying, ‘We can shell wherever we want, whenever we want,’ ” Abu Faisal said. Referring to the peace talks, he added: “It seems like Geneva 2 is not for us.”
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said Monday that the government was continuing to obliterate “terrorists’ dens.” The Assad regime characterizes the rebel fighters as terrorists.
The Aleppo Media Center on Sunday released the names of 93 people who it said were killed by barrel bombs in Aleppo that day. But just after midnight, “that number became a hundred,” Abu Faisal said. By Monday afternoon, he said he had no idea what the toll was.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 1,460 people were killed in violence nationwide in the past week. That is about the same as the number of people who U.S. officials say died in a chemical weapons attack near Damascus in August that caused an international outcry.
At least 45 people were killed Monday in the attacks on Aleppo and the town on the Turkish border, Azaz, according to the Associated Press, which quoted activists.
William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, said in a statement that he was “deeply concerned at the escalating level of violence in Syria.
“I condemn the use of brutal and indiscriminate weapons in densely-populated civilian areas, such as we have seen in Aleppo in recent days.”
Heavy clashes also broke out Monday between government forces and rebels around Aleppo province’s two majority-Shiite towns, Nebl and Zahra, in a sign of how the conflict has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones. Syria’s rebels are mostly Sunni Muslims, while Assad’s government is dominated by Alawites — members of an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Islamist rebel groups vowed last week to attack Aleppo’s Shiite-majority towns if the air raids did not let up. On Monday, they followed through, the Observatory said.