As 'mother of all battles' see-saws again, civilians trapped in Aleppo suffer
Four years after the battle for Aleppo began, the fight has taken yet another twist after rebel forces broke a month-long siege by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The sudden advance by fighters on an army complex in the city's southwestern flank has again put the contest for what was once Syria's main commercial hub front and centre in a war that has now claimed more than 400,000 lives.
Aleppo, historically part of the Silk Road route and a Unesco World Heritage site before the war left its ancient neighbourhoods ruined, is of huge symbolic and strategic importance. Located some 50km south of the Turkish border, the city was the motor of Syria's economy before the uprising against Assad began in early 2011.
Losing Aleppo would be catastrophic for Assad. In summer 2012, the opposition saw the city as a prize worth capturing and one they could transform into a headquarters for their revolt. In what has since become a multi-faced war with a complex patchwork of factions - including Isil, and also Shia militiamen from Lebanon, Iran, and Afghanistan fighting for Assad - everyone agrees on how crucial Aleppo is. "It's clear that Aleppo will be the toughest and most important battle and most dangerous battle and the longest of all the battles that have erupted," Amine Hotait, a former Lebanese general who is close to Hezbullah, which is also fighting on Assad's side, said in the Syrian newspaper 'Al-Thawra'.
Regime media regularly refer to Aleppo as "the mother of all battles", while Hezbullah has described it as "an existential struggle". Rebel forces echo their opponents' rhetoric but speak of a battle to "liberate" the city.
Not only does the rebel breakthrough last Friday week reopen a corridor into opposition-held areas of Aleppo and bring with it the possibility of a fresh push into regime-controlled neighbourhoods, it also challenges Assad's hopes that Russian air strikes could soon secure for him a decisive victory in the city.
When Moscow entered the fray last September, carrying out an aerial campaign human rights groups say has regularly targeted hospitals and market places in Aleppo, many believed it would be a game changer. Rebel forces suffered heavy losses and were also weakened by their own infighting. When Assad's forces took control of a key artery in northern Aleppo last month, it served to cut off the rebels' last route into the city and left the 250,000 people living in the opposition-held part of the city under siege by the regime. Residents, already living under aerial bombardment, were faced with dwindling food, medicine and fuel supplies.
The breaking of the siege means that some supplies are now getting in. Russia, meanwhile, has promised daily three-hour-long halts to its military strikes to allow aid to be delivered to the city, though this plan has been met with some scepticism. UN humanitarian co-ordinator Stephen O'Brien said the Russian proposal fell far short of what was needed. Late this week, trucks carrying food were unable to enter Aleppo due to heavy bombardment.
Human Rights Watch said it had documented six air strikes by regime or Russian planes on medical facilities that resulted in 17 deaths over the past two weeks. "With heavy bombing continuing relentlessly in Aleppo especially, hospitals and clinics need to be treated as the sacred life-saving places they are, not as additional bombing targets," said HRW's deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry.
The dire situation was highlighted by 15 doctors in opposition-held eastern Aleppo in an open letter to US president Barack Obama. "We do not need tears or sympathy or even prayers," they wrote. "We desperately need a zone free from bombing over eastern Aleppo to stop the attacks and international action to ensure Aleppo is never besieged again … Unless a permanent lifeline to Aleppo is opened it will be only a matter of time until we are again surrounded by regime troops, hunger takes hold and hospitals' supplies run completely dry."
Russia's bombing campaign in Aleppo served to undermine efforts to get a political process in train that could find solutions to a five-year conflict which has turned millions of Syrians into refugees. The advances made by rebel forces - a mix of groups including US-backed units and the Nusra Front which recently claimed to sever ties with al-Qa'ida - represents a set-back for Moscow and its strategy. It feeds the perception among opposition forces that they can turn the tables even when set against Russian military might. But Aleppo's war has see-sawed for years and the disparate rebel groupings may struggle to hold or build on their gains of the past week.
The embattled people of Aleppo - both on the rebels and regime side - see no end to the war in sight.