Middle East

Regime forces inch closer to Aleppo

A rebel fighter fires towards pro-regime forces during clashes in Sheikh Najar area of the restive Syrian city of Aleppo on February 25, 2014.(AFP PHOTO/ALEPPO MEDIA CENTRE/FADI AL-HALABI)

BEIRUT: Syrian government troops made advances Tuesday against rebel positions near the city of Aleppo, while rebels claimed they were holding their ground in the Qalamoun region near the border with Lebanon.

In Aleppo, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said that government troops, backed by National Defense paramilitary forces and officers from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, advanced against rebel groups near Aleppo’s airport, and close to the Army’s 80th Division headquarters.

At least 17 rebels, including some non-Syrians, were killed in the fighting, the Observatory said.

It said that regime troops were now one kilometer away from the neighborhood of Tariq al-Bab, which has been targeted repeatedly by regime airstrikes and barrel bombs in recent weeks.

The Observatory said the government troops, backed by paramilitary forces, seized a factory in the Sheikh Said area of Aleppo while rebels, backed by the jihadist Nusra Front, disabled a regime vehicle in Sheikh Najjar, adding that the regime side sustained casualties in the clashes.

Three groups – the Nusra Front, the Mujahedeen Army and the Islamic Front alliance of seven militias – have announced that they were joining forces to set up a unified command center to help fight back against the government’s latest efforts to advance on the northern city.

Despite the calls for unity in the face of the regime offensive, the Observatory reported that two rebel battalions clashed in the city, with two civilians killed in the crossfire.

In Idlib province, rebel militias captured two regime checkpoints near the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which was recently declared the target of a new rebel campaign.

In rural Hama province, an unspecified number of soldiers were killed when rebels attacked checkpoints near the village of Souran.

The commander of an Islamist militia was killed in clashes outside Yabroud, the Observatory said, as government artillery struck targets around the town, along with the nearby region of the Rima Farms, and the nearby towns of Maaloula and Seidnaya.

The rebels are claiming that they have continued to withstand an offensive by regime troops and fighters from Hezbollah. The latest battles raged in the Rima Farms region, where the latest attempt by Hezbollah and the Syrian Army to achieve a breakthrough against rebel defenses failed, activists said.

The Qalamoun Media Center, a pro-opposition media activist group, claimed that three soldiers were summarily executed after they tried to defect to the rebel side during the campaign against Yabroud. It added that at least six soldiers were killed in the clashes near the Rima Farms region and acknowledged the death of the rebel commander, whom it identified as Firas Qassem.

In Deraa province in the south, government artillery shelled rebel positions in a number of locations, while the Observatory said that a relative of Gen. Rustom Ghazaleh, a top intelligence official, was killed when a roadside bomb targeted his car.

Rebels also made advances during clashes near Deir al-Zor’s military airport as government troops and rebel groups traded artillery fire, the Observatory said, adding that there were confirmed casualties on the regime side.

The Observatory said that the regime has sent reinforcements to Qunaitra province, after recent gains by rebels there.

Meanwhile, as rebel groups continue their campaign against militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Observatory said that ISIS’ deputy military commander for Raqqa province, a Tunisian national, was killed when a roadside bomb targeted his car. The blast killed three other ISIS members, who included a Saudi national.

While ISIS has periodically executed members of the various Free Syrian Army groups and Islamist militias, the Observatory said that it released the commander of a rebel group after holding him captive for nearly a month in the city of Raqqa.

The Observatory said that rebels seized the village of Kafrnaya in Aleppo from ISIS, as fierce fighting raged around the town of Manbij.

Also, two fighters with ISIS were killed by the Kurdish PYD militia in the village of Tal Barrak, between the cities of Hassakeh and Qamishli.

Monday’s nationwide fatality toll, the Observatory said, stood at 222 people, with the majority, 176, coming from the ranks of the various combatant groups.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 26, 2014, on page 8.




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