BEIRUT — Violence surged in Syria on Thursday as Syria’s government made it clear it has no intention of abiding by U.S. calls for the restoration of the failed U.S.-Russian cease-fire deal.
Late Thursday night, the Syrian army announced the launch of an offensive to recapture the rebel held eastern portions of the city of Aleppo, which has been completely surrounded by government forces for the past three weeks.
Syrian rescue workers and activists reported heavy bombing in rebel controlled areas early on Friday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least 40 air strikes from midnight onwards.
The head of civil defense, the acclaimed “White Helmets” rescue service, in the eastern part of the city said three of its four centers had been hit by bombs, knocking two of out commission.
“Today, we can say our work has stopped because of the lack of fuel, the destruction of the equipment and the intensity of the bombardment,” Ammar al-Selmo told Reuters news agency.
The announcement of the offensive suggested that Syria’s government has no intention of complying with any further cease-fire requests from the international community, despite appeals by Secretary of State John F. Kerry the day before to revive the failed attempt to stop the fighting.
In an interview with the Associated Press in Damascus, a defiant President Bashar al-Assad said he takes no notice of what U.S. government officials say.
“American officials — they say something in the morning and they do the opposite in the evening,” he said. “You cannot take them at their word, to be frank. We don’t listen to their statements, we don’t care about it, we don’t believe it.”
Throughout the day, warplanes pounded eastern Aleppo. Residents and activists described strikes as intense as they have ever been in the country’s five-year-old war.
Scores of people have been killed in the airstrikes since the cease-fire collapsed on Monday, and another 21 died on Thursday evening when bombs landed on two residential neighborhoods, according to activists living in Aleppo.
The bombs continued to rain down as the evening progressed, and activists said they took the ferocity of the bombardments of the past 24 hours as a sign that “a big battle is coming,” said Ahmed Aziz, an activist living in the rebel-held areas of Aleppo.
“This means welcome to hell,” said Abdulkafi Al-Hamdo, a teacher who lives in rebel-held Aleppo. “We expect extermination.”
The government, meanwhile, claimed victory over another small corner of the country, in the central city of Homs. Some 300 rebels and their families piled onto buses in the neighborhood of Al-Waer after accepting the terms of government surrender deal to leave their homes in return for safe passage to rebel-held territory further north.
The official Syrian news agency SANA said Russian troops helped supervise the evacuation, which has been condemned by the United Nations and the Syrian opposition as a form of forced displacement.
The capitulation of the rebels in Waer means that the city of Homs is now entirely under government control for the first time in nearly five years. The deal was similar to others that have been implemented in neighborhoods elsewhere that had joined the original revolt against Assad only to find themselves surrounded by government troops and cut off from food and medical supplies. The Syrian opposition and the United Nations have condemned the surrender deals, proclaimed as forced displacement, but they have proved an effective way for the government to slowly reassert its authority in areas that had slipped beyond its control during the rebellion.
In the interview, Assad said he expected the war to “drag on” as long as the United States and its allies continue to support what he called “terrorists” in Syria.
He refuted U.S. claims that Russia was responsible for bombing a U.N. aid convoy on Monday and denied that his government was bombing civilians.
He also said that it was clear the U.S. attack on a Syrian army base in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour on Saturday that killed dozens of Syrian troops and contributed to the collapse of the cease-fire could not have been a mistake.
Fighters with the Islamic State “attacked right away after the American strike. How could they know that the Americans are going to attack that position to gather their militants to attack right away and to capture it one hour after the strike?” he asked.
“So it was definitely intentional, not unintentional as they claimed.”