Hundreds join crucial battle for Syria's Aleppo

Recapturing Aleppo -- at the moment evenly divided between govt & rebel forces --would be the biggest opposition victory yet in Syria's five-year civil war. In photo: Syrians gather in Aleppo in celebration after rebels said they broke a govt siege. Photograph:( AFP )

AFP Beirut, Lebanon Aug 08, 2016, 02.04 PM (IST)
Syrian regime forces and rebel factions sent hundreds of reinforcements to Aleppo today as opposition fighters announced an all-out offensive to take the country's second city.

The battle for Syria's former economic powerhouse is intensifying after an opposition advance at the weekend broke through a three-week government siege of the city's rebel-held east, dealing a major setback to regime troops.

Rebel forces yesterday announced a bid to capture all of Aleppo city, which if successful would mark the biggest opposition victory yet in Syria's five-year civil war.

But forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are putting up a fierce fight and have begun pouring reinforcements into the city.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said some 2,000 pro-regime fighters from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah had arrived in Aleppo since late yesterday.

"Both sides are amassing their fighters in preparation for the great battle of Aleppo," said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory.

The Monday edition of Al-Watan, a Syrian daily close to the government, reported that the army had received "the necessary military reinforcements to launch the battle to retake the areas from which it withdrew."

Citing a source on the ground, the paper said military warplanes "are carrying out a barrage of air strikes targeting the armed groups."

'New phase to liberate Aleppo'

Aleppo has been roughly divided between government forces in the west and rebel groups in the east since fighting first broke out there in mid-2012.

After years of stalemate, fighting for the city entered a new phase last month when government forces took control of the last supply road into rebel-held areas, leaving some 250,000 people in eastern districts surrounded.

In a desperate bid to break the siege, a coalition of rebels, Islamists and jihadists overran a series of buildings in a military academy on the southwestern edges of Aleppo on Saturday.

They then pushed northeast to link up with rebel groups inside the city.

Emboldened by the victory, the fighters - largely grouped under the banner of the Army of Conquest - then set their sights on recapturing all of Aleppo city.

In a statement yesterday, the Army of Conquest announced "the start of a new phase to liberate all of Aleppo," pledging to "double the number of fighters for this next battle."

Abdel Rahman told AFP today that hundreds of opposition fighters had arrived in Aleppo from the surrounding province and neighbouring Idlib.

Most were from the Fateh al-Sham Front, the powerful jihadist group previously affiliated with Al-Qaeda that leads the Army of Conquest. The group changed its name from Al-Nusra Front last month after breaking with Al-Qaeda.

"Whoever wins (in Aleppo), the war will not end. It is however an important battle, the result of which will set the course of the conflict," said Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert at the University of Edinburgh.

"If the rebels win, Syria will head towards partition, with a regime arc in the Golan Heights, Damascus, Homs, and the coast," he said.

But if the regime wins, Pierret expected a "collapse" of the rebel insurgency in its heartland of Idlib.

Aid to regime areas

Residents of both sides of the city have been living in fear of competing sieges of their neighbourhoods in recent weeks.

The rebel advance at the weekend cut off a key regime access route on the city's southern edges, which had been used to bring in supplies for the estimated 1.2 million residents of western districts.

Overnight, regime forces brought in dozens of trucks carrying food and fuel into the western neighbourhoods via the northern Castello Road, according to the Observatory.

"This is the new route that the regime forces are securing as a temporary alternative to the route they previously depended on," Abdel Rahman said.

Syrian state television Al-Ikhbariyah confirmed that "fuel, food, and vegetables entered Aleppo city."

A military source in Damascus denied that the city's west had been besieged, saying "the situation is under control and the situation is not worrisome."

Seven trucks of fruits and vegetables entered the eastern rebel-held districts today and were quickly purchased by residents.

More than 280,000 people have been killed since Syria's conflict erupted in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

International efforts to resolve the conflict have repeatedly failed though the United Nations is hoping that peace talks can resume later this month.