BEIRUT – In a withering four-day air assault, the Syrian government pummeled opposition-held neighborhoods in the northern city of Aleppo, leveling apartment buildings, flooding hospitals with casualties and killing nearly 200 people.
Rebels say the unusually intense airstrikes have prompted civilians to flee to the countryside and could portend a government ground offensive against the opposition-held half of the city, which has been divided for a year and half by grueling fighting.
The air campaign's timing – five weeks ahead of an international peace conference – also suggests that Syrian President Bashar Assad could be trying to strengthen his position on the ground while exposing the opposition's weaknesses before sitting down at the negotiating table.
The stakes are high in the battle for Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a former commercial and industrial hub. For the government, wresting back control of the entire city would deal a devastating blow to the rebels' morale and throw doubt on the opposition's long-term hold on the vast territory in northern Syria that it has captured over the past two years.
Since it began on Sunday, the government air assault has hammered more than a dozen neighborhoods in the rebel-held areas of Aleppo. The campaign has killed at least 189 people and wounded 879, the aid organization Doctors Without Borders said in a statement Wednesday.
Many of the air raids have targeted neighborhoods that have seen infighting between moderate rebel factions and extremist al-Qaida-linked opposition groups, said the commander of the moderate Aleppo Swords brigade, who goes by the nom de guerre, Abu Thabet. He declined to give his full name for security reasons.
The airstrikes have overwhelmed Aleppo's already strapped medical facilities, which are struggling to cope with the influx of casualties and are running out of drugs and medical supplies, Doctors Without Borders said.
The impact has been so devastating, in part, because of the government's choice of weapon: helicopters that drop so-called barrel bombs containing hundreds of pounds of explosives and fuel, causing massive damage. Activists have dubbed the bombs "barrels of blood" because of their deadly effect.
"Civilians have been leaving the neighborhoods being hit and taking refuge either in villages or traveling to Turkey," Abu Thabet said.
Other residents, however, have quickly adjusted. On Tuesday, just 100 yards from a bombing site, "people were buying and selling like nothing had happened," said an Aleppo-based activist, Abu al-Hassan Marea.
In the past, the government has heavily bombarded civilian areas before launching a ground offensive, said Abu Thabet, adding that the current campaign may signal a major operation is imminent.
"I think the regime is planning for a new offensive. They want to advance on several fronts," he said by telephone from Aleppo.
But Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who closely follows the Syrian conflict, doubted that a ground offensive was looming. He noted that Assad's forces are already waging two large-scale operations, one around Damascus and the other in the rugged Qalamoun region north of the capital, and are unlikely to open a third now.
"I don't think that we will see, at least in the near future, a very large offensive in Aleppo," said Jaber, who also heads the Beirut-based Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research. "The priority for the regime is the capital first, Damascus and around it, and now Qalamoun because it controls the Damascus-Homs highway."
He said the government was merely exploiting its superior fire power in Aleppo.
"It's better to use the air force than to carry out a ground attack, it's less costly," he said.
Wednesday's air raids hit at least four neighborhoods, said Marea, speaking to the Associated Press via Skype. One exploded near the Ahmad al-Qassar school, while another landed by a student dormitory, he said.
At least two people were killed, Marea and the Observatory said.
Syria's main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, accused the international community of "failing to take any serious position that would guarantee a stop to the bloodbath."
The country's conflict, now in its third year, appears to have escalated in recent weeks as both sides maneuver ahead of next month's planned peace talks and ignore calls for a cease-fire. The U.S. and Russian-brokered peace conference is scheduled to begin in January in the Swiss city of Montreux.
The conflict has exacted a staggering price on Syria and the region. More than 120,000 people have been killed, and nearly 9 million Syrians have been uprooted from their homes – some 40 percent of the country's prewar population of 23 million. They include some 2.3 million who have fled to neighboring countries, sparking a region-wide refugee crisis.
Late Wednesday, the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television network aired an interview purportedly with the reclusive leader of the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group, Abu Mohammad al-Golani.
Al-Golani, who has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, said Jabhat al-Nusra will not attempt to lead Syria after Assad falls, but will work with other groups, as well as Islamic scholars and intellectuals, to administer the country according to Islamic law.
Al-Jazeera did not say when or where the interview, in which al-Golani's face was not shown, took place, although the Nusra leader appeared to be sitting in a studio.
Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid, Zeina Karam and Yasmine Saker in Beirut contributed to this report.