Rebel fighters advance on Aleppo in attempt to break siege

Opposition forces fire hundreds of rockets and artillery shells in opening salvo of battle

A rebel fighter reacts while riding a military vehicle in Dahiyat al-Assad, west Aleppo city, Syria October 28th, 2016. Photograph: Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

A rebel fighter reacts while riding a military vehicle in Dahiyat al-Assad, west Aleppo city, Syria October 28th, 2016. Photograph: Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

 

Rebels outside Aleppo have launched the opening salvo of a battle aimed at breaking the siege of the opposition-controlled east of the city.

Opposition fighters fired hundreds of Katyusha and Grad rockets and artillery shells to lay the groundwork for an advance of rebel troops, who marched on territory controlled by the government of Bashar al-Assad from the west of Syria’s former industrial capital.

“To our steadfast people in Aleppo, your brothers... are determined to break the siege of Aleppo,” said a spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful opposition group taking part in the offensive. “We are at the gates, and we will break the siege again.”

A quarter of a million people are living under siege in eastern Aleppo . They have been subjected to a relentless aerial bombing campaign conducted by the Assad regime and its Russian allies, who have deployed weaponry including bunker-buster bombs.

Moscow has been accused of perpetrating war crimes in the ancient city , with observers drawing comparisons to Russia’s wars in Chechnya. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in the eastern neighbourhoods of the city in recent weeks as Assad and his allies have sought to press home their military advantage.

Rumours of a brewing rebel offensive have been circulating for weeks. Eastern Aleppo, under opposition control since 2012, was besieged in July. The siege was briefly broken by a rebel offensive, and then reimposed with the backing of Russian warplanes.

The offensive began in the early hours of Friday, and by the early afternoon the rebels had seized a district known as Dahiyat al-Assad, and begun shelling adjacent neighbourhoods in an effort to push further towards the besieged east.

The aim appeared to be the creation of a corridor that would link rebel-held Aleppo to the surrounding countryside dominated by the opposition, though rebel commanders have not outlined their path for fear of compromising military operations.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, said more than 15 civilians had been killed and 100 wounded by rebel shelling of government-held western Aleppo. State media reported that five civilians were killed.

Focal point

The operation began with an assault that deployed artillery, rockets, ground advances and suicide bombers and is believed to involve thousands of opposition fighters. “All the factions are taking part,” said one journalist who was accompanying the ground troops.

Aleppo has emerged as a key focal point and symbol of the Syrian war. The conflict pits Syrian government forces and Iranian-backed militias from Iraq and Lebanon, supported by Russian fighter jets, against an array of rebel groups inside and outside the city. It is the last major urban stronghold in Syria that is partially under opposition control.

Among the factions that appear to be taking part in the battle to break the siege are Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the powerful Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, as well as the Turkish-backed rebel group, the Sham Front.

Footage from the battle front showed tanks and rebel fighters advancing on the ground under cloudy skies which they hope will reduce the visibility of Russian and Syrian warplanes, as well as soldiers firing mortars. Residents have also burned tyres to obscure their view.

The Syrian state news agency said that al-Qaeda-linked terrorists had launched a wide assault west of Aleppo but that it had been repelled.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was also a key element in the rebel offensive to break the siege in August. Its role will complicate the battlefield – though the group claims to have severed its links to al-Qaeda, few believe that that would mean a change in ideology or loyalty.

But it has emerged as a powerful fighting force against theAssad regime and increasingly entrenched itself within the opposition, which has seen middling military support from its international backers.

Ceasefire efforts brokered by the US and Russia have in the past aimed to isolate the group from other rebel fighters, but those have failed

Guardian service