Aleppo: Rebels’ lines are collapsing, is the city falling?

Aleppo: Assad regime advances with tanks, rebels hold some fronts
A medic holds a dead child after airstrikes in the rebel held Karam Houmid neighbourhood in Aleppo, Syria October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Assad regime’s policy of brutal war in Aleppo started to fruit and became close to retrieving the city, as its forces said they had taken control of an important district in rebel-held parts on Saturday breaking the rebels’ lines after fierce fighting, in one of the most important advancements of Assad regime forces since the crisis started. 

There are about 275,000 people trapped by the siege of eastern Aleppo, where civilians are suffering through daily bombing, including by bunker-buster and incendiary weapons, and through starvation, as limited supplies run out and aid convoys are blocked from the city.

Assad regime forces advanced with a ground and air assault on the edge of the besieged eastern half of the city into the Hanano housing area, a move designed to split the rebel-held east in two.

This is the most important advancement of Assad regime against the rebels moving the balance of power in its favor. All its previous attempts were repelled by rebel forces who tried to break the siege from the outside and failed too.

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.

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.

More than 800 civilians were killed in a month and more than 2000 injured in rebel-held areas of Aleppo province, including the besieged eastern part of the city, Civil defense workers said.

On Friday 29 October the rebel forces started a new military operation to break the siege, employing heavy shelling and suicide car bombs, was mainly focused on the city’s western edge by rebels based in the countryside outside Aleppo.

The operation continued on Saturday 30 October. The rebels were able to capture much of the western neighborhood of Assad where a majority of Saturday’s fighting was concentrated, according to the Syrian army and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syrian rebels, on Sunday 31 October, kept up their shelling of regime-controlled areas of the city, killing at least seven people, including three children, state TV reported, and used car bombs and tanks to push into new territory in western areas. The Syrian regime claimed the opposition fighters used toxic gas.

Another rebels’ attempt fail

However, the rebels’ attack was repelled in many fronts by Assad regime’s forces and the battles have slowed down after the fourth day, as Assad regime deployed hundreds of fighters to the area and intensified its airstrikes.

Russia’s defense ministry announced then on Wednesday 2 November a new humanitarian pause and said that six exit routes will be open on Friday for ten hours, from 9am to 7pm, to allow civilians in eastern Aleppo to leave, along with two new exit routes for the fighters to withdraw from the area.

“All attempts by the rebels to break through in Aleppo have failed,” the ministry said. “The terrorists have suffered heavy losses in lives, weapons and equipment. They have no chance to break out of the city.”

The rebels have rejected Russian demands that they withdraw from the northern city of Aleppo by Friday evening, according to officials in rebel factions, and said they will go on with their military operation.

Government forces said that they were preparing a major offensive to push opposition fighters out of the besieged eastern half of the city, and started it again on Tuesday.

Reversing rebels’ advancement, breaking their lines

The regime’s forces’ persistent and the intensive airstrikes forced the rebels to leave the areas they took.

Assad regime said on 19 November that its forces captured the Dahiyet al-Assad district of western Aleppo , reversing all the gains made by rebels two weeks into their counter-attack against government-held areas.

After heavy air strikes pounded the area, Syrian government forces took Minoan village and nearby positions, which were captured by rebels last month, the Observatory said.

Last week the army also captured the 1070 Apartments district and nearby hills in southwest Aleppo, a focal point of fighting for months and important because of its position alongside a corridor used by the government into the western zone.

Helicopters continue extensively dropping barrel bombs in conjunction with airstrikes by warplanes on areas in the eastern neighborhoods of the city, accompanied by artillery shelling by the regime forces in the same places.

The relentless aerial bombardment that has reduced to rubble civilian homes and left the rebel-held east without any functioning hospitals for a quarter of a million people, including almost 100,000 children, according to Aleppo health directorate and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Attacks with chemical weapons also were conducted. Assad regime used chlorine gas at least 4 times in its current offensive.

Assad regime forces retook almost a third of the Masaken Hanano district, which has been held by the rebels for the past 4 years, on 22 November according to the observatory.

Masaken Hanano was the first Aleppo district to fall to rebels in 2012, and it is strategically vital.

Splitting the rebel-held areas in two

On Saturday 26 November, Assad regime forces said in a statement they had, alongside their allies, taken full control over the Hanano housing district.

This move could split the rebel-held east in two.

“Engineering teams are removing mines and improvised explosive devices planted by terrorists in the squares and streets,” the statement said.

A Syrian state television reporter broadcast live from a part of Hanano on Saturday as government forces sought to establish full control over the area. Gunshots could be heard and behind him damaged buildings and rising smoke could be seen.

An official in an Aleppo rebel group said a map circulated by pro-government media showing government forces in control of the Hanano area was largely accurate.

“Every day there are a lot of attacks, helicopters dropping barrel bombs and war planes dropping bunker-buster bombs and cluster munitions,” Modar Shekho, an emergency nurse in al-Shaar neighborhood, told Al Jazeera.

“The revolutionaries are fighting fiercely but the volume of bombardments and the intensity of the battles, the dead and the wounded, and the lack of hospitals, are all playing a role in the collapse of these frontlines,” said an official from Jabha Shamiya, one of the biggest groups fighting against Assad in northern Syria. Some of its members are fighting in Hanano.

He condemned the “international silence” and said the government and its allies were trying to exploit the period before the next U.S. administration took over.

“The Iranians, Russians and regime know there is a vacuum and they are trying to exploit it using all means,” he said. “We are in touch with the friendly states but unfortunately Aleppo is being left to be slaughtered.”

Yasser al-Yousef, from the political office of the Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebel group, said insurgents had fought fiercely for more than 48 hours to defend Hanano and the southern front of east Aleppo from heavy government bombardment.

In the 12 days since the renewed bombardment on east Aleppo, at least 201 civilians, including 27 children, have died in the besieged sector, the Observatory said. There were 134 rebel fighter deaths.

The coming days will decide the future of the conflict in Syria, as defeating the rebels and retrieving Aleppo means destroying the last major resistance stronghold of the Syrian rebels and will lead eventually to the victory of Assad regime and ending the Syrian revolution.