BEIRUT, Lebanon — Rebel forces and their jihadist allies challenged the Syrian government’s siege of opposition-held districts of Aleppo over the weekend, seizing military facilities in the city’s southwest and tentatively opening a road to the besieged area.
The government, backed in the skies by Russian jets and on the ground by fighters from the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militant group, pounded the area with airstrikes and artillery fire on Sunday, seeking to reverse the rebels’ advances, according to monitoring groups.
The rebels’ progress complicated the battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war and a major prize for the combatants. The city has been divided since 2012, with government forces holding most of the western neighborhoods while the opposition holds districts in the east.
Government forces, with the aid of Russian airstrikes, encircled the rebel-held eastern districts in July, raising fears among aid groups of a prolonged siege that could affect hundreds of thousands of civilians.
But a surprise offensive, coordinated between rebels inside the city and other groups that hold territory farther west, was mounted to open a pathway through the city’s southwest.
By Sunday, they had seized a number of sites, including a government artillery school, and had tentatively opened a road to the rebel-held eastern parts of the city. While a few trucks bearing vegetables managed to enter, the area remained too dangerous for significant aid shipments to arrive or for civilians to depart, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict from Britain through contacts inside Syria.
News of the rebel advance led to public celebrations in rebel-held areas.
The Syrian state news media denied that the rebels had broken the siege, while some pro-government news outlets acknowledged that the rebels had advanced.
Reflecting the profound sectarian overtones that have come to define Syria’s conflict, the rebels named the offensive after Ibrahim al-Yousef, a member of a militant branch of the Muslim Brotherhood who fatally shot dozens of mostly Alawite soldiers in 1979 inside the artillery school that opposition forces seized.
The Alawites, a religious minority that includes President Bashar al-Assad, have long played an outsize role in Syria’s armed forces, while the rebels seeking Mr. Assad’s ouster belong to the country’s Sunni Muslim majority.
A vital factor in the rebel advance over the weekend was cooperation between mainstream rebel groups, some of which have received covert arms support from the United States, and the jihadist organization formerly known as the Nusra Front, which was affiliated with Al Qaeda.
The Nusra Front’s leader announced in July that his group was changing its name to the Levant Conquest Front and severing its ties with Al Qaeda to remove a pretext for the West to bomb its forces. While Western officials dismissed the move as a semantic change that did not reflect a shift in goals or ideology, analysts said it could ease cooperation between the jihadists and other rebels.
That is what appears to have happened, with the jihadists proudly sharing images on social media of suicide bombers who helped launch the battle over the weekend.
(via NY Times)