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Syria crisis: Have regime and rebels committed crimes against humanity?

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Hosam Katan/Reuters

(Read caption) A man holds an injured boy after what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and hit a school and a residential building in Seif al-Dawla neighborhood of Aleppo Sunday.

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Syrian government forces and rebel groups have both committed wartime atrocities that amount to crimes against humanity in the northern city of Aleppo, according to a new report from Amnesty International.

Released on Tuesday, the report comes as the United Nations launches its latest attempt to revive peace talks to end Syria’s four-year conflict. Previous diplomatic efforts to achieve a negotiated end to the conflict have failed. But a UN envoy on Syria has suggested that a new round of negotiations could come as soon as next month.  

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Amnesty says civilians in Aleppo, once Syria's largest city and commercial capital, “are being subjected to appalling human rights violations” committed by both sides.

Aleppo has experienced some of the fiercest fighting of the war. The Syrian military’s campaign has brought "sheer terror and unbearable suffering," Amnesty said, forcing many civilians "to eke out an existence underground to escape the relentless aerial bombardment."

The Amnesty report includes eyewitness testimony of the devastation caused by barrel bombs: large canisters packed with explosives and scrap metal. It says government forces have dropped them on hospitals, mosques, and schools in rebel-held neighborhoods across the city.

"By relentlessly and deliberately targeting civilians the Syrian government appears to have adopted a callous policy of collective punishment against the civilian population of Aleppo," Amnesty's Philip Luther told The Associated Press.

The report estimates that barrel bomb attacks killed more than 3,000 civilians in Aleppo last year, and more than 11,000 across Syria since 2012. The Associated Press reported Sunday that at least seven people died in a barrel-bomb attack near a school in Aleppo

More than 220,000 people have died since Syrians rose up against the regime in March 2011. An additional four million Syrians are registered as refugees.

The Amnesty report also documents war crimes allegedly committed by insurgent groups through their use of imprecise weapons – including improvised rockets fitted with gas canisters – against government-controlled neighborhoods in Aleppo.

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Amnesty accuses both sides of committing torture, arbitrary detention, and kidnapping. It calls on both sides to end such widespread abuses and to “allow unimpeded humanitarian access to the UN and its implementing partners in Aleppo and in Syria as a whole.”

Meanwhile, the UN has announced that it will host about six weeks of separate talks with rival sides and “as many stakeholders as possible” in Geneva.

The talks are expected to include Turkey and Iran. But the BBC reports that Islamist militant groups such as the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front have not been invited, despite the power they hold on the ground.

Agence France Presse reports that there will be no face-to-face meetings between the different sides. Instead, representatives, ambassadors, and experts will hold separate closed-door consultations.

"We don't expect any major announcement, we don't expect any concluding communiqués that will be signed by everybody," UN spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters.

The hope is to give the UN peace envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura time to find possible negotiating positions. Mr. de Mistura hinted last week that a new round of full negotiations to end the conflict might still be possible, AFP reports, perhaps starting as early as next month.

The UN-led consultations come at a critical moment for rebel forces in Syria. The Christian Science Monitor’s Taylor Luck reported yesterday that rebels have gained momentum against the regime, but only with the support of Islamist militants seen as hostile to Western powers and their regional allies. Now Jordan, one of those allies, has decided to switch its focus to counter-terrorism.

The biggest loser from Jordan’s 180-degree shift in policy appears to be the Free Syrian Army, a secular group led by Syrian army defectors that Jordan, and the US, has trained and armed. And it comes, ironically, as the FSA, long derided as splintered and ineffective, is starting to make headway against Syria’s regime – but only by teaming up with Islamist militias deemed a threat to Jordan.

“There is a fear and frustration in Jordan that rather than moderate forces, support for the rebels in the south has only strengthened extremist groups such as Al Qaeda,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, a political analyst and expert on jihadist movements.

“There is an opinion that after four years, Syrian rebels can no longer be counted on.”