Russia paves way for Iranian-backed advance on Aleppo

Syrian troops, backed by Russian air power, and allied militias opened a new front against rebels around the second city of Aleppo on Friday, where up to 2,000 Iran­-backed forces are deployed.

The Aleppo offensive is the fourth that President Bashar al­Assad’s regime has launched since Moscow began an air campaign on September 30. Control of Aleppo city, once the country’s economic centre, has been divided between the regime and rebels since mid­2012.

A security source said the operation in southern Aleppo province was backed by Russian strikes and fighters from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.

A US official said as many as 2,000 Iranian and Iran­backed forces were aiding the offensive. The joint command for the Aleppo operation said the army had begun operations on the western and southern outskirts of Aleppo “to liberate you from the armed terrorist groups.”

The Britain­-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the regime had taken control of two villages so far, and that Russian warplanes were pounding two others. Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said Russia had carried out dozens of strikes on the area, which is controlled by a patchwork of rebel groups, including moderates, Islamists and Al­Qaeda affiliate Al­Nusra Front.The monitor also said the death toll in the conflict had risen to more than 250,000.