AMMAN: Syrian government forces backed by foreign Shiite militants advanced on rebels in the northern city of Aleppo Tuesday, bent on recapturing districts from opposition brigades weakened by infighting, activists said.
They said that rebels saw the threat of President Bashar Assad wresting back Aleppo, Syria’s former commercial hub and once most populous city, as so grave that Islamist brigades, including an Al-Qaeda affiliate, had declared an emergency and summoned all fighters to head to the fronts.
After two-and-a-half years of conflict, which started when Assad’s forces fired on pro-democracy demonstrators and escalated into a full-blown civil war, the fighting has settled into a rough stalemate in which scores of people are killed every day.
Aleppo has been divided roughly in half by the warring parties for much of the conflict but the government is determined to reassert total control to solidify a foothold in the north where rebel supplies stream in from Turkey.
The rebel groups’ joint declaration said government forces backed by Hezbollah fighters, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Iraqi Abu al-Fadl Abbas militia had launched “a fierce offensive to reoccupy” Aleppo.
Dozens of men from both sides have been killed in the last few days in embattled northern and eastern areas of the city. The fighting has also involved the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), another Al-Qaeda branch comprised mainly of foreign fighters that has been gaining ground in the north.
Opposition sources said Iraqi Shiite and Hezbollah fighters based near Damascus had moved north to support the offensive on Aleppo. Hezbollah and Iran do not comment on the scale of their military involvement in Syria.
Activist Mohammad Nour of the Sham News Network opposition monitoring group said large neighborhoods in Aleppo such as the eastern district of Hananu which have been largely rebel-controlled for more than a year were now looking vulnerable.
“Regime forces aided by Hezbollah, the Iraqis and the Iranians have launched a pincer movement from the north and the east and are closing in on major neighborhoods,” he said.
“Infighting has undermined Aleppo’s defenses,” he said, referring to clashes in the past two months inside the city and in its northern rural environs between Al-Qaeda affiliates and units belonging to the Western-backed rebel Supreme Military Council, whose command is based in Turkey. Islamist units have also fought among themselves.
The United States and European allies hope a proposed Syria peace conference in Geneva will yield an interim government that can help end the bloodshed raging since 2011.
Activists said Assad’s forces, backed by tanks, had taken two high-rise buildings in the northern Ashrafieh and Bani Zeid districts, and advanced into the areas after close-quarter street fighting.
Rebels have held most of eastern Aleppo and several districts in the west and center since fighters based in the rural hinterland and in impoverished outlying districts stormed the city in July last year.
Tareq Abdul-Hamid, an activist well-connected with different brigades in Aleppo, said: “Luckily the regime seems to be underestimating how much the [internal] divisions have sapped rebel strength and has been overcautious in its advance.”
Government forces recaptured at the start of November the town of Safira southeast of Aleppo on a main supply route to Hama and, with Hezbollah’s help, an army base near Aleppo airport after the compound changed hands several times.
Also Tuesday, Syrian troops clashed with rebels on the southern outskirts of Damascus, activists said, part of a weekslong government advance to retake opposition-held areas around the city.
The fighting came as rebels intensified mortar fire into the heart of Damascus – an often random shelling that has killed dozens of civilians this year.
Families in the Bab Sharqi neighborhood Tuesday buried four Christian children killed a day earlier when mortar fire hit the bus that was taking them home from private school, killing the driver as well.
“Those children were angels,” wept Marwan Qabalan, a family friend who came to pick up the body of 9-year-old Vaniciya Mekho from the morgue in the Mujtahed Hospital. The morgue visit was organized by Syrian officials who usually restrict reporters’ access.
Her parents couldn’t bear to come, Qabalan said. The child was still dressed in her school uniform and blood covered her clothes and face.