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Syrian army prepares for Aleppo battle

A Syrian regime gathering point is seen through a sniper scope in Aleppo's Karm al-Jabal district June 8, 2013. (REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman)

DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Syria’s army is preparing to launch an assault on Aleppo aimed at driving rebels out of the northern city and surrounding province, according to media reports and security sources Sunday.

The preparations came five days after the army and its ally Hezbollah retook Qusair in center-west Syria, a year after the strategic region had fallen into rebel hands.

“It is likely the battle for Aleppo will start in the coming hours or days, and its aim is to reclaim the towns and villages [under rebel control] in the province,” the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“The Syrian Arab army is ready to carry out its mission in this province,” the source said.

Analysts say its success in Qusair has given the army the confidence to try to suppress the insurgency elsewhere in the strife-torn country.

Pro-regime daily Al-Watan said Sunday the army had “started to deploy at a large scale in Aleppo province, in preparation for a battle that will be fought in the city and its outskirts.”

Rebels in July 2012 launched a massive assault on Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub. The city has suffered daily regime bombardment and clashes pitting insurgents against troops.

Al-Watan also said “the Syrian army will take advantage of its experience in Qusair and Eastern Ghouta [near Damascus] to advance in the [central] province of Hama and Homs” nearby.

“The consequences of the battle for Qusair will ... map out the contours of Syria’s political future,” the daily added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Friday that the regime was deploying “thousands of soldiers” in the Aleppo region who aimed to recapture rebel positions and to cut off their weapons supply routes from Turkey.

The Britain-based monitoring group also said Hezbollah had sent “dozens of its cadres to train hundreds of Syrian Shiites in combat.”

Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s media channel, reported that the army’s “Northern Storm” operation had started Sunday morning, aimed at “regaining Aleppo and its countryside.” Iran’s Press TV and Russia Today echoed this report.

But according to the Observatory, the assault on Aleppo had not yet begun.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Observatory said he had as yet received no new reports of ground developments.

“Shelling in many areas around the city continues as normal, but I don’t see anything special. There is no change on the ground,” he said.

Mohammad Aleppo, an independent activist now based in Turkey who works with a range of Syrians still in the country, said that rebels and the army were clashing at an important hillside vantage point area to the northwest of the city of Aleppo, Maaret al-Atiq, in the Al-Rashidine area.

“There have been heavy clashes there for the last three days,” he told The Daily Star. “If the army were able to secure it then they would be able to advance on the city itself,” he added.

Battles raged Sunday near Al-Nubul and Zahra, two rural Shiite enclaves outside the commercial hub Aleppo in Syria’s north.

“The aim is to use the two villages as forward bases to make advances in Aleppo and its countryside,” said Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sheikh, a rebel commander and former senior officer in Assad’ military, referring to government tactics.

“The regime considers that it has received a shot in the arm after the Qusair battle, but they will find that it will not be easy to advance in Aleppo,” Sheikh said, speaking from an undisclosed location in northern Syria.

Another rebel commander, from the Free Syria Brigade, using the name Salah told The Daily Star there had been increased air traffic from the direction of Al-Nubul and Zahra for the last two days.

“We are forming groups to prepare but we lack ammunition,” he said via telephone from the area.

He said intercepts of government communications revealed the presence of Hezbollah fighters at Shweihneh Mountain, also in the northwest.

Activists in Homs, where an army siege of rebel-held areas entered its second year Sunday, said the city may be next in line for army operations.

“Qusair was the regime’s main focus in the province. Now, we fear they may shift their attention to Homs city,” said Yazan, a Homs-based activist who spoke to AFP via the Internet. – The Daily Star, agencies

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 10, 2013, on page 1.

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