Assad troops recapture eastern Aleppo as rebels withdraw
The Syrian army and its allies announced the capture of a swathe of eastern Aleppo from rebels yesterday in a major advance that threatens to crush the opposition in its most important urban stronghold.
Two rebel officials said the insurgents, facing fierce bombardment and ground attacks, had withdrawn from the northern part of eastern Aleppo to a more defensible front line along a big highway after losses that threatened to split their enclave.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the northern part of eastern Aleppo lost by the rebels amounted to more than a third of the territory they had held, calling it the biggest defeat for the opposition in Aleppo since 2012.
A rebel fighter reached by Reuters said there was "extreme, extreme, extreme pressure" on the insurgents. Part of the area lost was taken over by a Kurdish militia from Aleppo.
Capturing eastern Aleppo would be the biggest victory for President Bashar al-Assad since the start of the uprising against him in 2011, restoring his control over the whole city apart from a Kurdish-held area that has not fought him.
For Assad, taking back Aleppo would shore up his grip over the main population centres of western Syria where he and his allies have focused their firepower while much of the rest of the country remains outside their control.
It would be seen as a victory for his allies, Russia and Iran, which have outmanoeuvred the West and Assad's regional enemies through direct military intervention.
"What happened in the last two days is a great strategic accomplishment by the Syrian army and allies," a fighter with a militia on the government side in the Aleppo area said.
Rebels said their foreign patrons including the United States have abandoned them to their fate in Aleppo.
Assad, whose backers also include the Lebanese group Hezbollah, has gradually closed in on eastern Aleppo this year, first cutting the most direct lifeline to Turkey before fully encircling the east, and launching a major assault in September.
A military news service run by Hezbollah declared the northern portion of eastern Aleppo under full state control.
The Russian Defence Ministry said about 40pc of the eastern part of the city had been "freed" from militants by Syrian government forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the Syrian army's advances with members of his Security Council yesterday, Russian news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.
Officials with two Aleppo rebel groups said rebels had withdrawn to areas they could more easily defend, particularly after losing the Hanano housing complex area on Saturday.
"It is a withdrawal for the sake of being able to defend and reinforce the front lines," an official in the Jabha Shamiya rebel group said.
Citing a military source, Syrian state TV said the army and its allies had seized another key eastern Aleppo neighbourhood, al-Sakhour. The Jabha Shamiya official said part of it had been evacuated so it would become part of the new frontline.
The Kurdish YPG militia, which controls the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo, moved into at least two of the areas left by rebel forces. The YPG, a US ally in the war with Isil, has been hostile to the Aleppo rebel groups.
Some rebels accused the YPG of conspiring with the government in its advance - a charge made against the Aleppo-based Kurds before and one they have previously denied. Another rebel official said the YPG had moved into areas on Sunday in an agreement with the insurgents.
While some rebels in Aleppo have received support from states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States, they say their foreign backers have failed them as Assad and his allies unleash enormous firepower.
The fighting has forced thousands of residents of eastern Aleppo to flee. Some have gone to the Kurdish-held Sheikh Maqsoud district, others to government territory, and others have moved deeper into remaining rebel-held areas.