AMMAN: The Syrian army is slowly gaining ground on the outskirts of rebel-held east Aleppo, focusing first on shoring up its encirclement before launching a ground assault into the heart of the opposition stronghold, a pro-regime correspondent in Aleppo told Syria Direct in a recent interview.
Over the past two weeks, Syrian government and Russian aircraft have waged a massive aerial assault on the opposition-controlled neighborhoods of Aleppo, killing hundreds of civilians.
Meanwhile, regime forces and allied militias have gained ground in the city’s northwest after launching repeated ground assaults along a frontline separating government-controlled west Aleppo from the city’s east, the last major urban area under opposition control.
“The Syrian army understands that the battle for Aleppo will likely take a long time,” said the pro-regime reporter, who is well-connected to Syrian military commanders in Aleppo. The journalist requested Syria Direct refer to him by the pseudonym of Atef Nur.
“The army is spreading their efforts between reinforcing the city’s siege and capturing territory inside Aleppo.”
Map design by Tariq Adely
‘Terrorists from the countryside cannot advance’
Late last month, Syrian army units and a pro-regime Palestinian militia, Liwa al-Quds, captured the Handarat refugee camp (see map above), before advancing this week into a large industrial area which skirts densely populated opposition-held neighborhoods in north Aleppo.
Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) reportedly assisted the regime advance by pushing north from the Kurdish-majority neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud.
The advance from Handarat will “frustrate any opposition attempts to open a breach into east Aleppo from the northwest,” said Nur.
In the city’s south, reinforcing the siege means moving from the Ramouseh military complex, which rebels briefly captured from regime forces in August, toward the Hikmah hill, an elevated area overlooking the Aleppo countryside. Regime forces have not yet made significant advances on Hikmah.
“The Syrian army wants to ensure terrorists from the countryside cannot advance toward the eastern neighborhoods to support or re-supply their fighters there,” said Nur.
‘Drive a wedge’
While Syrian army forces in Ramouseh and Handarat look to broaden the government cordon surrounding east Aleppo, thousands of additional government fighters are preparing for a large ground assault on the rebel pocket itself.
“The goal is to drive a wedge from the citadel toward the Aleppo International Airport, separating the [east Aleppo] pocket into two weakened sections which the army can deal with separately at a later point,” said Nur.
On Wednesday night, Syrian army forces allegedly advanced into the Bustan al-Basha neighborhood, an opposition stronghold just north of Aleppo’s ancient citadel. The assault came just a few hours after Syrian state media announced the government’s intention to reduce its shelling of eastern Aleppo to “assist civilians who wish to exit” the area.
“The regime bombing of the city is less intense today, but they are providing more close air support to their soldiers, who are in turn putting pressure on the fronts,” Muhanad Makhzum, a citizen journalist in east Aleppo, told Syria Direct Thursday.
Makhzum confirmed to Syria Direct that two Bustan al-Basha districts fell to the regime Wednesday night, but said that rebel forces led by the Nuredine a-Zinki militia were fighting to retake them.
In addition to the front at Bustan al-Basha, which falls near the Aleppo city center, Syrian army forces are also engaged in heavy fighting on the eastern districts’ southern and northern ends: at Owaijeh, an urban area just northeast of the Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud district and at the southern neighborhood of Sheikh Saeed, due east of Ramouseh.
“Moving into Sheikh Saeed would be the most important military victory on the Aleppo front,” said Nur. On Wednesday, pro-regime media claimed that government forces had advanced into Sheikh Saeed, “killing 20 militants from Jabhat a-Nusra,” now known as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham. At the time of writing, Syria Direct could not confirm the claims of an advance on Sheikh Saeed.
Despite small advances at Owaijah, Bustan al-Basha and Sheikh Saeed, most of the fighting in Aleppo city is still back and forth. Regime forces and their allies have yet to make deep incursions into east Aleppo’s densely populated eastern neighborhoods where the street-to-street fighting for the city is likely to drag on for weeks, if not months.
Nevertheless, Nur is confident the tide of battle has shifted in the government’s favor.
“The government knows this will be a drawn-out fight,” he said.
“But the military map of Aleppo is slowly starting to change.”
For more on the regime’s strategy to recapture all of Aleppo city, please see our interview with WINEP analyst Jeffrey White here.