AMMAN: Regime and rebel forces were locked in battles on multiple fronts across divided Aleppo city on Monday after both sides reportedly used last week’s pause to draw reinforcements and prepare for major military operations, local rebels told Syria Direct.

Immediately after the ceasefire ended on Saturday evening, “regime forces attempted to advance on more than 10 fronts in the blockaded neighborhoods of Aleppo city,” Ahmad al-Halabi, an east Aleppo activist told Syria Direct on Monday.

While the ceasefire may have had a limited impact on the ongoing humanitarian crisis facing a quarter million residents of rebel-held east Aleppo, it gave combatants on both sides of the conflict the chance to prepare for future battles, rebel and civilian sources in the city told Syria Direct.

Aleppo rebels say they interpret the regime’s multiple attacks across the city as an attempt “to disperse rebel forces and mobilize all of the fronts” in the city ahead of an “epic battle” that they say is slated to begin in the immediate future. 

While an official announcement about the Aleppo battle has yet to be made, rebel chatter about an imminent offensive began late last week. Activist al-Halabi also believes that the prospect of a rebel offensive “pushed the regime to accelerate its battles,” in Aleppo city, opening new fronts and “drawing heavy reinforcements from the south Aleppo countryside.”

Sergey Rudskoi, a Russian military official, told reporters on Friday that rebels outside Aleppo were using the pause to amass their forces for an attack on regime forces in the city.

“More than 1,200 men, including 30 suicide bombers,” said Rudskoi, “have been massed up for an attack against Aleppo from the southwest.”

Last Thursday, an Ahrar a-Sham commander told Syria Direct that rebels were preparing to begin a battle “to break the siege of Aleppo.”

“The zero hour for the battle is imminent,” Ahmad Hamaher, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) faction Nour e-Din a-Zinki told Syria Direct on Monday, declining to provide further details.

 Regime force operations southwest of Aleppo on Monday morning. Photo courtesy of Central War Media

Russia, the regime’s strongest and most influential foreign partner, announced a unilateral “humanitarian pause” last week to temporarily halt the bombardment of Aleppo’s rebel-held east.

The pause, Russia said, was to allow civilians and rebels to leave the blockaded eastern half of Aleppo through eight humanitarian corridors. The initially 11-hour ceasefire began last Thursday morning and was extended twice by Moscow before expiring at 7pm this past Saturday.

It is not clear how many people—rebels or civilians—left east Aleppo during the 59-hour pause. On its first day, Moscow and Damascus said that rebels bombarded the corridors and prevented civilians from leaving. Some in the eastern neighborhoods accused regime snipers of firing on civilians near the corridors.

Back to battle

When fighting resumed on Saturday, the aerial and ground bombardment of rebel-held east Aleppo by loyalist forces did as well. Pro-opposition media in the city have reported shelling and airstrikes on nine rebel-held parts of the city in the past two days, with multiple casualties reported.

Pro-regime media is reporting ongoing rebel shelling of west Aleppo, where 1.5 million people live. Syrian state media agency SANA reported that rebel bombardment killed a child and injured 24 others on Monday.

 A regime map of southwest Aleppo city shows positions captured from rebels on Sunday and Monday, circled in yellow. Photo courtesy of Central War Media.

Rebels deny intentionally targeting civilians, but confirm that they are shelling the city. “We have warned civilians to stay away from regime positions,” Zinki’s Hamaher told Syria Direct on Monday. “We have only targeted the areas of clashes and fighting with regime forces,” he claimed.

Fighting remained largely deadlocked on most of the recently opened fronts in Aleppo on Monday, rebels and an activist told Syria Direct. They claimed that Syrian armed forces and their allies drew reinforcements to the fronts in Aleppo city throughout the cessation.

However, in southwest Aleppo, near Ramouseh, regime forces since Saturday “were able to advance and take control of the Air Defense Battalion and Bazou hill,” said Zinki spokesman Hamaher. The advance followed heavy preliminary ground bombardment, he said.

Both positions, located in southwest Aleppo city, were captured by rebel forces in their July battles that briefly broke through an earlier regime siege of eastern Aleppo.

The Air Defense Battalion and Bazou hill are important, rebels told Syria Direct on Monday, because they are on high ground and overlook wide areas of the countryside immediately southwest of Aleppo city.

Syrian state media agency SANA reported that the Syrian army and its allies had “carried out an operation marked by speed and accuracy” southwest of Aleppo city and retaken the battalion on Sunday. “Terrorists” planted IEDs and explosives in the area before being killed or fleeing, the agency added. On Monday, SANA claimed the capture of Bazou hill by regime forces.

After two days of losses, rebels in southwest Aleppo “are trying to regain what we lost,” Zinki spokesman Hamaher told Syria Direct on Monday.