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Rebel commanders: Regime seeks to encircle Aleppo city, ‘send the world a message’ with Russian support

AMMAN: The Syrian regime and its allies are attempting to […]

AMMAN: The Syrian regime and its allies are attempting to encircle contested Aleppo city via a land campaign beginning in the province’s southern countryside “to send the world a message…that it can advance under Russian air support,” a high-level rebel commander in the field told Syria Direct Monday.

On Friday, the regime unleashed ground troops out of its base in Safira and the neighboring Defense Factories roughly 20km southeast of Aleppo city. From these points, the two-pronged assault is moving both northeast and west into the south Aleppo countryside. The goal, three rebel commanders tell Syria Direct, is to form an uninterrupted cordon around the city that will strangle the rebels, and ultimately civilians within.

“The regime is trying, through these battles, to establish a large security cordon around Aleppo city,” Major Ahmed Abu Ismael, a Feilaq a-Sham officer with the Fatah Halab operations room, told Syria Direct Monday. The Fatah Halab, or Aleppo Victory, operations room was established this past April to decide the battle for Aleppo city. The alliance includes al-Jabha a-Shamiya, Ahrar a-Sham, Feilaq a-Sham and various FSA-affiliated rebel groups.

The regime, emboldened by Russian air support, “is using the southern Aleppo countryside as a base to launch operations to connect areas under its control” by eliminating rebel and IS-held pockets north, east and west of the city, said Abu Ismael.

“That’s exactly what the Assad regime is trying to do,” said Abu Faiz Abdullah, a First Lieutenant also with the Fatah Halab operations room, affirming his colleague’s analysis in a separate conversation with Syria Direct on Monday.

Message received

“The regime also wants to send the world a message…that it can advance under Russian air support—that’s why it launched this great battle,” the commander said.

On October 7, the regime began a ground offensive into central and northwest Syria backed by Russian warplanes, opening five fronts over the past two weeks to recapture key positions around Latakia, Hama, Homs and Aleppo.

The presence of Russian air support and foreign militias assisting Syrian forces in southern Aleppo has turned the battle into a “a hard situation” for rebels, Colonel Abu Rami of al-Jabha a-Shamiya told Syria Direct from the southern Aleppo countryside Monday.

The overt Russian assistance is forcing both the regime and rebels out of the longstanding stalemate that is Aleppo city. Prior battles have proved indecisive, with the Syrian army failing to complete its encirclement of Aleppo earlier this year as rebels united to defend Handarat, a key gateway into Syria’s second city.

The newest battle’s point of origin is the city of Safira and the neighboring Defense Factories complex, says Abu Ismael, commander with the Fatah Halab operations room. The Defense Factories’ barracks is a barrel-bomb production site and launching pad for regime air raids on neighboring provinces, while Safira, which lies on a desert route connecting Hama to Aleppo, has been described by a rebel commander to Syria Direct as a “center of gravity for the regime.”

From these points, regime forces are moving west to first capture the rebel stronghold of al-Hadher 31km southwest of Safira, and then the M-5 Aleppo-Damascus highway farther west.

They are also heading northeast towards the Islamic State-controlled al-Harariya power plant, which was knocked offline Sunday after being bombed, reportedly by the US-led international coalition.

Adjacent to the al-Harariya plant is the Kweiris military airport, surrounded by an Islamic State cordon that is another target of the regime’s offensive. From Kweiris, regime forces intend to move up into Bashkuy and the Industrial Zone northeast of Aleppo city, and then into the northwest countryside to break rebel forces’ encirclement of the Shiite towns of Nubul and Zahraa, says Abu Ismael.

If the regime were to succeed, it would be in a position to “encircle Aleppo from all sides,” says al-Jabha a-Shamiya Colonel Abu Rami.

As of publication, the battles are in their early stages with reports of light regime advances. The Syrian army has captured two villages and a hill from rebels northeast of Safira, Ridha al-Basha, a correspondent with the pro-regime Lebanese news channel al-Mayadeen told Syria Direct from Aleppo on Monday.

‘Trying to keep people alive’

Accounts from the ground indicate a relentless Russian, and possibly a tandem Syrian air campaign in the southern Aleppo countryside that has displaced some 55,000 civilians since it began on Friday, Ibrahim Radwan, head of the General Union of Humanitarian Organizations in Aleppo City, was quoted by the pro-opposition al-Hal a-Suri as saying on Sunday.

“The Russian jets have not left the southern countryside’s skies” since the battle began, Ammar al-Halabi, a citizen journalist present on the front, told Syria Direct Monday. “They’re bombing villages next to the fronts and targeting civilian houses.”

Residents in south Aleppo’s countryside cited what they called Russia’s indiscriminate, continuous air-bombing campaign of Talbisa and Jisr a-Shughour in central and northwest Syria as precedent for civilians to flee.

“We’ve seen what went on in Jisr a-Shughour and Talbisa as far as the intensity of the Russians’ bombing and its brutality—they don’t distinguish between fighters and civilians, but rather take revenge on civilians,” said Abu al-Iz al-Halabi, a displaced Syrian from southern Aleppo who has fled north near the Turkish border. “We decided to escape with our kids.”

Only one aid organization is operational in the southern countryside, drastically underprepared to deal with the latest displacement crisis.

Humanitarian workers “can only try to keep people alive by providing tents, water and some food according to their capabilities,” Basel Abu-Hamza, a journalist with the Victory Army, told Syria Direct from an undisclosed location in the south Aleppo countryside where Syrians are living in the open.

Most civilians have left their villages and have headed for nearby farmland, only marginally safer than their original locations.

“Some people found tents to take refuge in,” al-Halabi said of the people around him who fled north. “A large number found no shelter, and are now out in the open.”

Also out in the open is unexploded ordnance from the countless air raids, Abu-Hamza said.  

“Shells landed mere meters away from the farmland on which these families are staying,” he told Syria Direct.

“Every minute there is a rocket, shell or barrel bomb.”

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