October 9, 2013
By Syria Direct staff
AMMAN: Rebels outside Aleppo are struggling to hang onto the last section of a vital road connecting Syria’s heartland to the northern city.
The main highway from Hama to Aleppo is held by rebels, cutting off the regime’s ability to get supplies to its forces in and around Syria’s second largest city. This makes the alternate desert road, where fighting has been raging since August, a critical route for the regime to access its personnel in and around Aleppo.
Earlier this week, Syria’s official state agency SANA reported that the government had re-opened the alternate desert road. This is partially true; most of the road is now under government control and open after the regime captured a key town, Khanaser, last week that sits alongside it. But the rebels still have the town of Safirah, 25 km southeast of Aleppo, and fighting is ongoing there and along the highway between both sides due south, in the village of Abu Jurayn. [See map below.]
The Local Coordination Committee for Safirah reports that the Syrian air force conducted a morning raid on Wednesday, dropping barrel bombs on the city.
Safirah is home to the Jebel al-Sheikh Sa’ad Defense Industrial Center, where rebels say the government produces and stores an arsenal of chemical and conventional weaponry.
“It is a gravity center for the regime,” said the operations commander of the Aleppo Revolutionary Council who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Mohammad.
Pre-war population surveys estimated around 100,000 residents in Safirah. But with reports of shelling and gunfire in several of Aleppo’s districts overnight, it is uncertain where civilians are seeking shelter from the fighting.
The Safirah LCC Facebook page reports that ISIS and Jabhat a-Nusra are coordinating efforts to keep government troops out of their town.
Rebels are currently holding north and western sections of Aleppo and its suburbs; while east of the city, the regime still controls Al-Nairab military airport and the Aleppo International Airport. The alternate road to Aleppo, which runs through the desert, is therefore the only route for regime forces to get to its sites. The government has resorted to air-dropping food and other supplies to proxies on the ground.
The Syrian air force bombed villages southeast of Aleppo on Wednesday as rebels conceded that they lost the town of Khanaser, located roughly at the midpoint on the alternate desert road from Hama.
“We admit our loss of Khanaser town, but it is not the end of battle,” said Abu Mohammed, the Aleppo FSA operations commander.
Pro-regime media hailed the capture of Khanaser as a major victory. Iranian state channel Press TV aired video of trucks moving north on the alternate desert road Tuesday along with pictures of government troops at the gateway to Khanaser.
“The army commanders have utilized all sorts of fire power, including air strikes, mobile artillery and short-range missiles to keep human casualties to a minimum,” said Press TV correspondent Alaa Ebrahim.
Rebels say residents have abandoned Khanaser and no townspeople are visible in the Iranian or Syrian government television reports. The capture of Khanaser has been a government objective since August, when rebels claimed the desert byway.