Rebels join forces in bid to end Assad's siege of Aleppo
Thousands of Syrian rebel fighters have joined forces to push back the army, in "the great battle for Aleppo" that they hope will end the siege.
Some 10,000 fighters have launched an assault against troops of the government of Bashar al-Assad south of the city, in a last-ditch effort to open routes out of opposition-held areas which have been closed for weeks.
Al-Qa'ida's former Syria affiliate and the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham group were yesterday trying to take Ramussa, a district in Aleppo's southwest suburbs which houses a government artillery base.
Capturing the district would close the regime-held western side's own supply route and cut it off from its territory in the countryside.
"We are now overlooking the Ramousah area but Russian jets are intensifying their bombing, which is holding us back from moving quickly," a rebel commander said, adding that they planned to fire shells and detonate car bombs.
More moderate opposition groups under the US-backed Free Syrian Army banner have launched their own offensives inside the city, but have so far refused to fight alongside the jihadists on the outskirts.
In the last few days the Islamist rebels had made gains, but the Syrian army, backed by allied Russian warplanes, yesterday launched a fierce fightback.
More than 50 rebel fighters and "dozens" of regime forces have been killed since the offensive began on Sunday, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.
Some 300,000 residents of the opposition-held east of the city have been trapped since government forces blockaded the final road out last month.
Petrol has run out and food is scarce. Russia last week announced the opening of humanitarian corridors for civilians and unarmed rebels. However, so far fewer than 200 residents of the rebel-held side have left through the supposed safe passages.
With all four leading out to government-held areas, residents are worried they could be arrested or killed as they leave.
The UN and US have criticised the move, saying it appears to be a plan to depopulate the city to help make it easier for Assad troops to retake it. The US has also asked Moscow to scale back what it calls its indiscriminate bombing of the city, which has not let up since the start of the siege.
Russia yesterday rejected criticism from Washington, saying it was "unacceptable" to demand restraint around Aleppo.
"As soon as there is real headway in fighting terrorists, made by the Syrian government and army with our support, the Americans started demanding that we stop fighting terrorists," Sergei Ryabkov, deputy foreign minister, said.
Middle East analyst Firas Maksad said that while Aleppo is key for government efforts to keep supply lines open, for the opposition, however, "this is really their last stand".
"If they lose Aleppo, which they've held a major portion of now for about four odd years, they might as well have lost all the battle for Syria," the adjunct professor at George Washington University in DC said.
Chris Doyle, director of Council for Arab-British Understanding, said he did not think the Syrian regime, even with the support of its Russian, Iranian and Lebanese allies, had the manpower to fully retake the city.
"They know their strength, and so are attempting to empty Aleppo rather than take it by force," he said.
"The battle looks set to be a long, drawn out war of attrition." (© Daily Telegraph, London)