Armed Syrian opposition factions began a counter-attack against the army and its allies today, aiming to break a weeks-long siege on eastern Aleppo, sources in the opposition said.
The assault, employing heavy shelling and suicide car bombs, was mainly focused on the city’s western edge by rebels based outside Aleppo. It included Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (JFS), a former affiliate of Al-Qaeda previously known as the Al-Nusra Front, and groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a British-based war monitor, said more than 15 civilians had been killed and 100 wounded by rebel shelling of regime-held western Aleppo. Assad regime media reported that five civilians were killed.
There were conflicting accounts of advances in areas on the city’s outskirts.
Aleppo, Syria’s biggest pre-war city, has become the main theatre of conflict between President Bashar Al-Assad, backed by Iran, Russia and Shia militias, and Sunni rebels including groups supported by Turkey, Arab Gulf nations and the United States.
The city has been divided for years between the government-held western sector and the opposition-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.
Photographs showed the opposition fighters approaching Aleppo in tanks, armoured vehicles, bulldozers, make-shift mine sweepers, pick-up trucks and on motorcycles, and showed a large column of smoke rising in the distance after an explosion.
Rebels said they had taken several positions from government forces and the SOHR said they had gained control over a checkpoint at a factory in southwest Aleppo and some other points nearby.
Powerful rebel group Ahrar Al-Sham claimed on Twitter to have held captured a building in the regime-held neighbourhood of Dahiyat Al-Assad, and added that they were “capturing many of sectarian militias.”
But a Syrian military source said the army and its allies had thwarted what he called “an extensive attack” on south and west Aleppo. A state television station reported that the army had destroyed four car bombs.
Abu Anas Al-Shami, a JFS media officer, told Reuters the group had carried out two “martyrdom operations” after which its fighters had gone in and had been able to “liberate a number of important areas.” A third such attack had been carried out by another faction.
A senior official in the Levant Front, an FSA group, said: “There is a general call-up for anyone who can bear arms,” adding “preparatory shelling started this morning.”
Heavy rebel bombardment, with more than 150 rockets and shells, struck southwestern districts, the SOHR said.
Broad offensive to break the siege
JFS played a leading role in a rebel attack in July that managed to break the government siege on eastern Aleppo for several weeks before it was re-imposed by the Assad regime.
Abu Youssef Al-Mouhajir, an official from Ahrar Al-Sham, said the extent of cooperation between the different rebel factions was unusual, and that the largest axis of attack was on the western edge of the city.
“This long axis disperses the enemy and it provides us with good cover in the sense that the enemy’s attacks are not focused,” he said.
The powerful role played by JFS, listed by many countries as a terrorist group, has complicated Western policy towards supporting the anti-Assad opposition.
The United States has prevented more powerful weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles from being supplied to rebels partly out of what it claims are fears they could end up in the hands of extremists. This logic has been furiously rejected and placed into doubt by numerous moderate Syrian factions.
A Syrian military source said today’s attack had been launched in coordination with Daesh, a group against which all the other rebels, including JFS, have fought.
Daesh fighters did clash with the Assad regime’s army today at a government-held airbase 37 kilometres east of Aleppo. However, these clashes occurred next to territory the militant group already controls, the SOHR reported. There are no indications that Daesh is cooperating with the opposition’s Aleppo offensive.
Al-Mouhajir, the Ahrar Al-Sham official, said cloudy weather was helping to reduce the aerial advantage enjoyed by the Syrian military and its Russian allies. Inside Aleppo, tyres were also burnt to create a smokescreen against airstrikes, a civil defence strategy that was widely adopted last summer.
Grad rockets were launched at regime-controlled Aleppo’s Nairab air base before the assault began said Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim group, adding that it was going to be “a big battle.”
The SOHR also said that Grad surface-to-surface rockets had struck locations around the Hmeimim air base, near Latakia.
Syria’s civil war, now in its sixth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced half the country’s pre-war population, dragged in regional and global powers and caused a refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe.