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IN THE past week eastern Aleppo, a rebelheld area that is home to more than 250,000 people, has endured a typhoon of shrapnel. Rebel groups say the regime of Bashar al-Assad is pursuing “a scorched earth policy to destroy the city and uproot its people”. Mr Assad is trying to regain full control over the western slice of the country, where some 70% of Syrians live. His Russian allies are helping, using the same tactics and some of the weapons that turned the Chechen capital, Grozny, into a smouldering ruin in 1999.

Since the collapse of the short-lived ceasefire brokered by America and Russia, hundreds of air strikes and shells have slammed into the eastern part of the city. Activists counted 250 separate strikes on a single day last week as the regime seeks to seize the opposition’s last big urban stronghold. On September 27th the regime, backed by Shia militias from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, launched a ground assault targeting rebel positions across the divided city.

“The situation is intense,” says one of the few remaining paediatricians in eastern Aleppo, who calls himself only Dr Hatem. “Many children have died. There is a shortage of medical staff, food and fuel. Everything is terrible now. It is as if they want to delete more than 250,000 people from the Earth’s surface.” The White Helmets, a volunteer civil-defence group, says that 450 people have been killed and 1,600 injured since fighting started again. Save the Children, a charity, says that half of the casualties at the medical facilities it supports in the east have been children.

Adding to the slaughter, the Russian air force is using more sophisticated weapons. Among them are the TOS-1A, a form of giant flamethrower that can also fire thermobaric missiles that suck oxygen out of the air and create huge blast waves; the BETAB-500, a massive bomb that penetrates buildings before exploding; and the RBK-500, an incendiary cluster munition.

When there is a brief pause in the bombing people come out of their homes and shelters to look for food and medicine, but there is little left in the markets and the price of meat has rocketed. They know they have only a couple of hours before the bombing resumes. “Every day when I leave my home to look for supplies, I tell myself that this will be the last time I see my family,” says one Aleppo resident. “This is the worst bombing we’ve seen since the start of the war. The new weapons make the ground beneath our feet shake. It feels like the end of the world.” Many stay hunkered inside in cellars or in makeshift bomb shelters underground.

“What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism,” America’s ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, told the Security Council on September 25th. “Instead of pursuing peace, Russia and Assad make war. Instead of helping get aid to civilians, Russia and Assad are bombing the humanitarian convoys, hospitals and first responders who are trying desperately to keep people alive.” Britain’s envoy, Matthew Rycroft, said that Russia was “partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes”.

For months the regime has slowly tightened its grip on eastern Aleppo. Food is so scarce that many people survive on only one meal of rice a day. Medical supplies are running dangerously low as hospitals overflow with wounded patients. The World Health Organisation says there are only 35 doctors left in the city and that all of the 25 medical facilities that still stand are on the verge of complete destruction. No aid is getting into Aleppo at all.

What quagmire?

In the year since Russia came to the rescue of Mr Assad’s brutal regime, the course of the Syrian civil war has fundamentally shifted. Russia’s decision was prompted by fears that its ally was about to be overthrown. Barack Obama said that Russia was stepping into a quagmire—perhaps projecting his own fears. That now looks wide of the mark. At relatively little cost—about $480m and the loss of 20 servicemen—Russia appears well on the way to preserving the regime and making itself the arbiter of any eventual settlement.

More secure than at any time since 2011, Mr Assad is now confident that a victory that will leave him in control of most of western Syria is within reach. With Mr Obama congratulating himself for his wisdom in not intervening in the civil war more forcefully, the regime and its Iranian and Russian backers are calculating that they will have a free hand over the next five or six months to establish control over more territory before a new president can reset America’s policy, should he or she even wish to. Mr Obama disposed of Syria in just two sentences in his valedictory speech at the UN last week.

It is against this backdrop that John Kerry, America’s secretary of state, laboured for months to stitch together the temporary cessation of hostilities deal that fell apart as soon as it began. The deal was doomed from the outset. Russia and America have wholly divergent aims in Syria. Vladimir Putin wants Mr Assad to be part of any transitional political arrangements; Mr Obama sees him as the main obstacle.

Even the hope that they could find common ground on fighting two terrorist groups—Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s recently rebranded Syrian affiliate, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS)—has been dashed. The Russians regard any rebel group that fights alongside JFS (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), including those supported by America, as a legitimate target. The main purpose of the JFS tactic of distancing itself from al-Qaeda was to reassure other less extreme outfits that it shares their patriotic ambitions and does not have some wider jihadist agenda. It is apparently working. In Aleppo, the sense of abandonment by the West has driven more moderate groups into the arms of JFS.

Winter is coming

Fred Hof, a former adviser on Syria at the State Department, brands Mr Kerry’s efforts as “the sad, pointless diplomacy of desperation and wishful thinking”. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, sees little hope of the fighting easing because Aleppo is so important to both sides. He argues that with winter coming and the siege continuing, a huge programme of humanitarian air drops may be the only way to keep the city’s inhabitants alive. It would require co-ordination with the Russians and the regime, but they would know that the opportunities for weapons smuggling would be far less than with aid brought in by road.

Despite the ferocity of the bombardment of the past few days and the start of a new ground offensive, the regime and its allies will struggle to take and hold territory unless they can traumatise the civilian population into a mass exodus. That is not yet happening. With only about 25,000 troops to call on, the regime lacks the numbers both to occupy eastern Aleppo and to continue the campaign against rebel groups in neighbouring Idlib province.

For their part, the rebels remain defiant. Yasser al-Yousef, a political officer with the Nur el-Din el-Zinki group, the largest rebel unit in eastern Aleppo, says that “this is a fight for our existence. Our front lines are fully prepared…Assad will have to turn Aleppo into sand to win. We have no choice but to resist.” He claims there are “tens of thousands of fighters in Aleppo”. Although few military supplies are getting through now, there are reports of the Saudis and Qataris preparing to send more heavy weapons to the defenders, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

The priority for Mr Obama’s successor will be to find a policy that provides America with at least some leverage over what happens in Syria’s endgame, rather than giving Russia free rein. Mr O’Hanlon says that the willingness to use some force is essential, both through air power and a few more boots on the ground. He advocates establishing a number of protected areas—“inkspots”—which could become autonomous zones in a more confederal Syria. To that end, he suggests carrying out reprisal strikes against Syrian aircraft and artillery units attacking civilians. He believes it would be relatively easy to take out Syrian aircraft once they had landed and that a “very careful, very selective” approach would avoid hitting Russian planes but would “let them know you are serious”. There would be some risk, he admits. But fears that it could start a war with Russia are probably wide of the mark.