Hoping to break into encircled east Aleppo, rebels surprise with attack from southwest

AMMAN: Regime planes pounded rebel positions in south Aleppo on Monday in an attempt to regain ground lost the day before when rebel forces mounted a surprise assault to break through the regime’s blockade of the rebel-held eastern part of the city.

On Sunday, rebel forces gained several kilometers of regime-held ground within the southwest perimeter of Aleppo city, and on Monday, stood roughly 4km west of Sheikh Saeed, the nearest neighborhood in encircled east Aleppo.

The Victory Army—a rebel alliance led by Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (previously known as Jabhat a-Nusra prior to the group’s July 28 split from Al-Qaeda)—captured two south Aleppo villages, a large apartment complex and the military center used largely to train Iranian and Hezbollah fighters.

The ongoing assault began with a two-car suicide bombing mission on a regime-controlled military training center in southwest Aleppo city, 6km west of encircled Sheikh Saeed.

“The rebels are now fighting inside western Aleppo city neighborhoods in direct contact with Assad forces, Hezbollah and other allied forces,” Ahrar a-Sham commander, Juma Abu Mohammed, told Syria Direct on Monday. “In this first wave of battles, this is the most important thing that we hope to accomplish.”

 Demonstrators in east Aleppo on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Mojahed Abu al-Jod.

The two districts separating the rebels from Sheikh Saeed are Katibat al-Madfaia and Ramusa, some of the most heavily reinforced regime-held positions in Aleppo. Not only is Katibat al-Madfaia the location of a regime artillery school, but the two neighborhoods serve as a gateway to the city’s west.

The opposition has never controlled these districts, nor says a journalist on the ground reporting for pro-regime media outlet al-Mayadeen, will it.

“The Syrian Army will not let this happen,” Rida al-Basha told Syria Direct from Aleppo near the front lines on Monday. “The plan to blockade the rebels in Aleppo in order to regain control of the city has been long in the making.”

SANA, Syria’s state media agency, confirmed the rebel offensive on Monday; however, it did not acknowledge the presence of any concrete rebel advances. “Persisting in their crimes against the people of Aleppo, a group of terrorists, targeted residential neighborhoods with shelling and gun fire,” SANA reported.

Meanwhile, pro-regime media outlet Al-Masdar reported on Sunday that the Russian air force “has come to the aid of the government forces in southern Aleppo…[bombarding] several sites under jihadist control.”

For more than three weeks, rebel forces have tried unsuccessfully to lift the siege of Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban center, by regaining control of the Castello Road, the last access road into opposition-held east Aleppo city.

 East Aleppo residents burn tires to hinder planes. Photo courtesy of Rami Jarrah.

Last Tuesday, regime forces moved from “fire cutting” Castello, or holding the road through extreme bombardment, to physically controlling a section of it. The road previously facilitated the movement of food, medicine and other supplies to east Aleppo city’s nearly 300,000 residents.

But in shifting the battle from the northern Aleppo fields to the densely packed southern Aleppo urban landscape, the Victory Army forces—largely comprising Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, Ahrar a-Sham, the Turkistan Islamic Party and Feilaq a-Sham—hope to redefine the dynamics of engagement.

“The battle is a street war now,” said Ahrar a-Sham commander Juma Abu Mohammed. “By fighting inside the regime-held neighborhoods, we hope to deter the planes’ ability to target us.”

If successful in penetrating the regime blockade of east Aleppo, the rebels say they will open a humanitarian corridor into the opposition-controlled west Aleppo countryside.

“This route would go directly from east Aleppo to [opposition-held] Idlib province,” Ala al-Halabi, an independent citizen journalist in the north Aleppo countryside, told Syria Direct on Monday. “Unlike the Castello Road, which is surrounded by regime, IS and SDF territory, the regime will not be able to cut this route.”

Breaking through the encirclement is unlikely, says pro-regime correspondent Basha, adding that even if rebels can punch through the line, they will not hold east Aleppo.

“The regime will not give up Aleppo once they have achieved their blockade,” said Basha.

While clashes rage on across the south and west of the city, hundreds of civilians in the occupied east burned tires in the streets for the second consecutive day on Monday. Demonstrators said they hoped the smoke would obscure targets of the Russian and regime planes.

“Burning tires was the only way to somewhat neutralize the planes,” Maher Abu al-Walid, an independent citizen journalist in rebel-held east Aleppo, told Syria Direct on Monday.

“It confuses the planes’ targeting.”

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.