Rebel fighters in Aleppo have launched a major military operation aimed at breaking a weeks-long regime siege of the opposition-controlled eastern part of the Syrian city.
About 250,000 civilians are believed to be living in the rebel-controlled territory, and their plight has drawn growing international alarm. The area has been subjected to a brutal aerial campaign from the forces of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies, destroying several of the last hospitals in the area.
Government troops imposed the siege after seizing high ground overlooking the Castello road, a vital artery and the only supply route into opposition territory from Turkey, which staunchly backs the opposition and has called for Assad’s overthrow.
Hundreds of opposition troops appear to be taking part in the multi-pronged offensive, launched across a wide front. Rebels say they have pushed back government forces across territory in the north and south of the city, taking control of areas that have been used as staging grounds for loyalist militias.
The campaign was launched on Sunday night, on the eve of the 71st anniversary of the founding of the Syrian army.
Opposition activists in Aleppo said rebel supporters burned thousands of rubber tyres in advance of the offensive in an attempt to obscure troop movements and limit the visibility of Syrian and Russian warplanes patrolling the skies. Videos posted online showed vast plumes of smoke enveloping the city, which was once the country’s commercial capital.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organisation that monitors the conflict, described the campaign as the largest military offensive launched by the rebels against government forces in years.
The battle to break the siege is the first major military offensive to involve Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the jihadi group known as Jabhat al-Nusra until last week, when it rebranded itself and said it had severed ties with al-Qaida’s central command.
Observers expect the reconstituted Nusra to forge closer ties with opposition groups fighting to overthrow Assad, though few believe the rebranding effort will herald any change in its ideology.
Humanitarian agencies have repeatedly warned that food and medicine are running out in eastern Aleppo.
The Kremlin had said it would open “humanitarian corridors” meant to allow civilians to flee and rebel soldiers to surrender in an effort to quell the rebellion.
But the proposal was deemed impractical as fighting raged throughout the city, and only a few dozen families appear to have left the besieged territory.
The Higher Negotiations Committee, which is representing the opposition in peace talks brokered by the US and Russia, said the Russian announcement was an attempt to displace civilians and depopulate the city.
“The forcible displacement of Aleppo’s population is a war crime perpetrated by the Syrian regime and a permanent member of the [UN] security council,” said Riyad Hijab, the head of the HNC, referring to Russia.
Aleppo has been a battleground since the opposition stormed it in 2012, taking control of roughly half of Syria’s second-largest city. Its loss would be a crushing blow to the five-year rebellion, perhaps an irreversible one that would cement Assad’s control over the nation’s urban centres.
Humanitarian agencies have been warning that the situation in Aleppo was dire and deteriorating rapidly, with untold numbers of civilian casualties due to indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling. The Red Cross described the situation as “devastating and overwhelming,” while Médecins sans Frontières said four of the hospitals it supports in the city were bombed over the past week alone.