Fears are growing for 275,000 civilians in Aleppo as Vladimir Putin prepares to launch a military attack on the Syrian city this week.
The Russian President is thought to be trying to take advantage of political limbo in the United States where Barack Obama has become a ‘lame duck’ president and the country is consumed by the race for the White House.
With the US election on November 8, a Russian flotilla of battleships, led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, is making its way through the Mediterranean on its way to attack the war-torn city, and it is believed submarines are going to join them.
Tensions between Russia and the West have escalated due to Moscow’s bombings in Aleppo, where the war rages between rebels and the Putin-backed Bashar al-Assad.
A western intelligence source says: ‘We think that the Russians are on the brink of a major military assault on Aleppo.
‘There could be significant humanitarian consequences.’
Aleppo, Syria’s second biggest city, has become the main stage of conflict between President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, Iran and the group Hezbollah; and Sunni rebels including some supported by Turkey, Gulf monarchies and the United States.
While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are engaged in a fierce war of words with only a week to go until election day, Putin knows President Obama is unlikely to risk his legacy by seeking a confrontation with Syria.
Russian submarines were detected in the Irish Sea as tensions rise between Moscow and Britain over the Kremlin’s aggression in Syria and Eastern Europe.
The decision comes amid increasing concern over Putin, after claiming territories in Crimea and the Ukraine, and numerous shows of force in recent months.
The nuclear-powered Akula-class submarines, armed with Kalibr cruise missiles capable of hitting land targets, were picked up on radar by a Royal Navy vessel.
Another submarine, a Kilo-class vessel from the same fleet, is believed to have travelled through the English Channel after it was spotted by Norwegian ships when it surfaced further north.
The three ships were being closely watched by a Royal Navy submarine – which has Russian speaking technicians – and tracked them closely for six hours.
Last week President Putin sent a fleet of eight Russian warships through the English Channel to assist the assault on the besieged Syrian city.
But this week, following pressure from its Nato allies, Spain withdrew permission for the ships to refuel in Ceuta because Moscow was unable to pledge the vessels would not be used to bomb Syria.
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels opened a new front in Aleppo as fighting spread on the third day of a major insurgent counter-attack to break the government’s siege of the opposition-held part of the city, and each side accused the other of using poison gas.
Syrian state media said terrorists had fired shells containing chlorine gas at a residential area of the government-held western part of the city, al-Hamdaniya.
Rebels denied that, and said government forces had fired poison gas on another frontline.
State media cited an Aleppo hospital director saying three dozen people – civilians and soldiers – had suffered suffocation in the alleged rebel gas attack, but did not report any deaths.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organisation that reports on the war, said it had confirmed reports of suffocation among government fighters in two frontline areas shelled by rebels, but it did not know if chlorine gas was the cause.
The rebels said the army had shelled rebel-held Rashideen district with chlorine and shared videos purportedly showing victims with respiratory problems.
The city has been divided for years between the government-held western sector and the rebel-held east, which the army and its allies put under siege this summer and where they launched a new offensive in September that medics say has killed hundreds.
The Observatory said at least 38 people including 14 children had been killed in rebel shelling of government-held areas of Aleppo in the last 48 hours.
Rebels said the attack had started with preparatory shelling earlier in the day. Russian planes resumed heavy bombing of the rebels’ new locations in west Aleppo – the latter also cited on pro-government sites.
The army said it had launched an offensive with allied forces on several fronts in the west and east of Aleppo and recaptured the village of Minian on the western edge of the city, taken at the start of the campaign, and had ambushed rebels who had infiltrated some buildings in Dahiyat al Assad.
Rebels denied that Minian had fallen.