Aleppo: Syrian rebels launch counterattack again to break siege

Syrian rebels staged a counterattack in Aleppo with heavy shelling of government-held areas and suicidal attacks to break the siege imposed by Assad regime and its Russian allies on Aleppo’s rebel-held areas.

The Syrian rebels have launched in July an offensive to break regime’s siege on the eastern part of Aleppo, but the offensive stopped after a few days and the siege worsened.

After that Assad regime, backed by Russia, said on September 22 it was starting a new wide offensive to recapture the rebel-held parts of Aleppo after a week-long ceasefire was declared officially over on 19 September.

The new assault, employing heavy shelling and suicide car bombs, was mainly focused on the city’s western edge by rebels based in the countryside outside Aleppo. It included Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a former affiliate of al Qaeda previously known as the Nusra Front, and groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner.

Heavy shelling on the western parts of Aleppo

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a British-based monitoring group, said rebel have launched hundreds of shells and rockets on various western neighbourhoods of the city and killed more than 15 civilians and wounded 100 others in government-held western Aleppo on Friday.

Ahrar al-Sham Movement’s media office confirmed that factions of Jaysh al-Fatah started Friday at dawn artillery and rocket preparatory shelling on Dhahiyat al-Assad and the surrounding areas to the west of Aleppo.

Syrian rebels also launched Grad rockets at Aleppo’s Nairab airbase as part of the new offensive aimed at breaking the government siege of insurgent-held areas of the city, a rebel official and SOHR said on Friday.

The BM-21 Grad is a Soviet truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher which was developed in the 1950s.

Zakaria Malahifji, an official with the Fastaqim rebel group present in Aleppo, said bombardment of the airbase was part of the new offensive and a number of rebel groups would participate in it.

“Today is supposed to be the launch of the battle,” Malahifji said. “All the rebel groups will participate.”

SOHR has also confirmed that Grad rockets had struck Nairab airbase and also locations around the Hmeimim airbase, near Latakia.

Seperately, shelling by Syrian rebels killed several children at a school in government-held western Aleppo on Thursday, the monitoring group and Syrian state TV said.

The shells hit two neighbourhoods, Syrian state news agency SANA reported. Shahaba, where three children were killed and dozens wounded, and Hamdaniya, where three people were killed.

SOHR said six children under the age of 16 had been killed in the two attacks.

suicide car bombs and armed vehicles

Friday’s attack began with rebels detonating three vehicle-borne explosives against government positions to the city’s southwest and attacking with hundreds of rockets, the Observatory said. It said at least one of the vehicles was driven by a suicide bomber for Fatah al-Sham, which also announced the offensive.

Fatah al-Sham claimed credit for two car bombs, saying in a statement that a “martyrdom-seeking fighter” drove a tank laden with explosives and parked it, before it was detonated and the fighter “returned to his brothers.”

Photographs showed insurgents approaching Aleppo in tanks, armored 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.

“All the revolutionary factions, without exception, are participating in the battle,” the military spokesman for the Fastaqim faction inside the city said, AP news agency reports.

They include Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, as well as fellow Islamists Ahrar al-Sham.

A senior official in the Levant Front, an FSA group, said: “There is a general call-up for anyone who can bear arms.”

Fateh al-Sham played a big part in a rebel attack in July that managed to break the government siege on eastern Aleppo for several weeks before it was reimposed.

Rebel forces also confirmed storming positions of the Iranian militias, west of Aleppo, after blowing up a remote-controlled car bomb and military bulldozer bomb, which destroyed a rockets and weapons depot of Assad forces.

Abu Youssef al-Mouhajir, an official from the powerful Ahrar al-Sham Islamist group, 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.

Gaining control over new areas

Fateh al-Sham said in a statement that rebels had gained control over Dahiyet al-Assad, a suburb with a low-rise residential district of about a square kilometer on the southwest corner of the city.

Zakaria Malahifji, an official with Fastaqim, a nationalist rebel group in the offensive, said insurgents had captured the residential area but not the whole of Dahiyet al-Assad. The Observatory said rebels had gained most of the suburb.

However, the Assad regime said it had repelled offensives on several fronts around Aleppo by both rebel groups and militants from so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

“Booby-trapped cars, two tanks and a large number of armored vehicles” were destroyed, the defence ministry said on its website.

The Assad regime also said Friday’s attack had been launched in coordination with Islamic State.

Islamic State fighters did clash with the Syrian army on Friday at a government-held airbase 37km (23 miles) east of Aleppo, next to territory the group already controls, the Observatory reported.

This is the second attempt by rebels to break the government’s siege of Aleppo’s opposition-held eastern districts.

Rebels opened a corridor to the east for the month of August after pro-government forces first applied a blockade in July, but they were not able to hold it as the government and its Russian ally pounded the gap with artillery and airstrikes. Pro-government forces reapplied the siege in early September.

The area has been subjected to a ferocious campaign of aerial attacks by Russian and Syrian government warplanes, and hundreds of people have been killed in recent weeks, according to opposition activists and trapped residents.

Recovering full control of the rebels’ last significant urban area would be the most important victory of the war so far for Assad, strengthening his control over Syria’s most populous and strategically important regions.