After breaking a weeks-long siege on the rebel-held half of Aleppo, opposition forces advancing through Syria’s largest city have turned the tables on regime forces — cutting the main supply routes to government-controlled districts that are home to more than 1m people.
Rockets rained down on both sides of the city — seen a key strategic prize in Syria’s five-year war — with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces backed by Russian air strikes and rebels launching artillery rounds into the regime-held south-western districts of Hamdaniya.
As the fighting rages there are concerns that Aleppo’s humanitarian disaster risks spreading to both sides of the northern city, which is split between the opposition forces and regime troops. An estimated 300,000 residents in rebel-held areas have been trapped for weeks by a government’s siege, and widely anticipated relief has been intermittent despite the opposition’s gains.
Rebels aligned with jihadi forces launched a surprisingly quick offensive last week that was initially described as their last stand in the city — the opposition’s only major urban stronghold. Their success in breaking the government’s siege has revived opposition hopes that the battle could instead turn into one of the biggest military challenges to Mr Assad in years.
For months, control of Aleppo has been seen as an opportunity to gain leverage ahead of future peace talks. A US-Russian brokered peace framework was expected to be agreed this month, along with a fresh round of negotiations in Geneva. But both plans have been thrown into doubt by the Aleppo battle.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said on Monday that the government had managed to bring in dozens of truckloads of food and fresh troops to bolster its forces.
But in western Aleppo, prices shot up at the weekend after government forces lost ground in the south-west of the city. Residents took to social media to complain about the sudden rise in prices, accusing some vendors of hiding food stuffs to sell later.
“Our friends in Aleppo say that in their visits to the markets, food stuffs are ‘disappearing’ in the blink of an eye,” wrote the Facebook group, ‘Corruption in the Time of Reform’, which is pro-government but criticises local corruption. “Vegetables are slowly disappearing with every position the army loses . . . They (the shopkeepers) are a principle partner in the war on the people of Aleppo.”
In the rebel-held east, pick-up trucks laden with fresh fruit and vegetables came into the area for the first time in weeks, but aid workers say that the shelling is so fierce, they still have no reliable route into the area.
“Only a very small amount (of goods) have entered to raise spirits, not to fill empty stomachs,” said Osama Abu al-Ezz, a doctor in Aleppo. “The Russian air planes are monitoring every movement in the liberated areas and are targeting them.”
Many observers worry that instead of a major victory for either side, Aleppo could sink into a brutal battle of attrition.
Russia, which intervened on Mr Assad’s behalf in September, could escalate air strikes, but Syrian regime forces have been unable to hold territory.
Two activists and a rebel fighter said that in the past few weeks, foreign backers have sent a huge influx of cash and weapons over the Turkish border, including new artillery rockets.
But despite those weapons, it is unclear whether the rebels can effectively use the territory they have captured as they are under constant air bombardment.
The fighting may also spread further across the largely rebel-held north.
On Saturday night, incendiary bombs hit neighbouring Idlib province, lighting up the night sky with explosions that activists blamed on Russian jets.
Rebels insist they will treat those living on the government-held western districts fairly.
“We will be very keen to protect the lives of every Syrian, regardless of their views or background,” rebels said in a joint statement.
But some on the government side may be wary of these claims due to the leading role of jihadi groups like Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate that has openly called for attacking the country’s minority Alawite sect.
Mr Assad and much of the ruling and military elite are Alawite.
Fatah al-Sham — formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra — named one of their first raids into western Aleppo last week after an Islamist who massacred dozens of Alawite soldiers in 1979.
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