Battle for Syria's second city has begun
The new offensive by Russia and Iran against the Syrian city of Aleppo may create an opening for Isil terrorists to seize more territory, Western diplomats have warned.
In the third week of their operation, the Kremlin's warplanes are now using their firepower to support a ground operation led by Iranian forces. The aim of the assault is to allow the Assad's regime to retake Aleppo, once the country's most populous city.
Iran has deployed about 2,000 fighters to lead the effort, drawn from the Revolutionary Guard and Hizbollah, the radical Shia movement. Most of the fighting yesterday was taking place south of the city as the pro-Assad coalition tried to secure the approach to Aleppo along the highway that runs south to Damascus.
Three villages fell into the hands of regime forces and their allies, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group.
A second prong of the offensive was also taking place east of Aleppo, apparently designed to relieve a military air base from a rebel siege.
But most of the areas targeted by Russian bombs and Iranian ground forces - including much of Aleppo itself - are not held by Isil. As a result, the whole thrust of the Russian and Iranian campaign is against other rebel movements - not Isil.
In fact, the insurgents who are bearing the brunt of the offensive are also bitter enemies of Isil. If they suffer heavy blows at the hands of Russia and Iran, Isil may be given an opportunity to capture still more ground.
One diplomatic source said: "We're very concerned that Russian-supported offensives are weakening the moderate opposition and Isil will take advantage of that."
Although President Putin claimed that destroying Isil was the sole aim of his intervention, about 85pc of the Kremlin's air strikes have targeted other rebel movements.
For the first six days of the Russian air offensive, not a single Isil target was attacked. So far, no Russian air strikes are believed to have taken place inside Isil's de facto capital of Raqqa. Instead, the offensive against non-Isil insurgents around Aleppo is now Russia's main effort.
Some Russian air raids have gone astray and inflicted civilian casualties. During the first 16 days of the intervention, Russian bombs killed 274 civilians and wounded more than 700, according to the White Helmets, a volunteer unit of Syrian search-and-rescue teams. Three of its own members have also been killed.
Meanwhile, Assad's regime has taken the opportunity to escalate its own air campaign, which consists largely of dropping "barrel bombs" on civilian areas. These crude weapons, barrels packed with shrapnel, explosives and flammable liquid, are rolled out of the back of helicopters. They cannot be targeted, and their use breaches international humanitarian law. At least 356 have been dropped by the regime since the start of Russia's intervention.
Russia has also used warships in the Caspian Sea to fire 26 cruise missiles at Syria. These weapons must fly through Iranian and Iraqi airspace to reach their targets, but some have failed to complete their journeys. Around four are believed to have crashed inside Iran.