Vatican City, Dec 12, 2016 / 02:29 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis has sent a letter to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad appealing for peace and for humanitarian relief, as the Syrian government consolidates gains in Aleppo, where tens of thousands are beseiged.

A Dec. 12 communique from the Holy See press office noted that in recently naming the apostolic nuncio to Syria, Archbishop Mario Zenari, a cardinal, “the Holy Father sought to show a particular sign of affection for the beloved Syrian people, so sorely tried in recent years.” The statement added that “in a letter sent through the new Cardinal, Pope Francis expressed again his appeal to President Bashar al-Assad and to the international community for an end to the violence, and the peaceful resolution of hostilities, condemning all forms of extremism and terrorism from whatever quarter they may come, and appealing to the President to ensure that international humanitarian law is fully respected with regard to the protection of the civilians and access to humanitarian aid.”

The Syrian civil war began in March 2011 with demonstrations against Assad. The war has claimed the lives of more than 300,000 people, and forced 4.8 million to become refugees. Another 8 million Syrians are believed to have been internally displaced by the violence. What began as demonstrations against the nation's Ba'athist president, Bashar al-Assad, has become a complex fight among the Syrian regime (supported by Russia and Iran), moderate rebels, Kurds, and Islamists such as the Army of Conquest and the Islamic State.

The Syrian government launched an offensive a month ago to retake Aleppo, the nation's largest city before the war began. Rebel forces have lost more than 90 percent of the city's territory they once held, though many civilians remain in the besieged sector, and food and water have largely run out. This weekend, the United States and Russia held talks over a deal to allow civilians and rebels to leave Aleppo, though no agreement was reached.