BEIRUT: The Syrian army is edging its way toward southeastern Aleppo as it battles rebel fighters for control of the northern city, a monitor and a pro-government daily said Tuesday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was a “limited advance” but the first by government troops in more than a year, and that residents fearing a major operation were fleeing the region.
The troops have gained some ground in Aleppo in the past few weeks, taking advantage of the fact that rebels who hold large swathes of territory have turned their guns against jihadist fighters.
“The Syrian army made a limited advance, for the first time in more than a year, and seized the Karm al-Qasr district on the southeastern outskirts of Aleppo,” held by the rebels, said the Observatory.
The offensive was launched from Nairab military airport east of Aleppo, Syria’s second city and pre-war commercial hub.
Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to President Bashar Assad’s regime, said the troops made the advance Monday and also seized the Ballura and Kasr al-Tarrab districts.
It also said the operation had been launched from Nairab airport in the east, as well as the village of Azizeh in the south, adding that it had reached the outskirts of Maysar, a rebel bastion in southeast Aleppo.
The Observatory said residents of Maysar, nearby Marjeh and Inzarat were fleeing their homes for “neighborhoods controlled by regime force ... because of the fighting.”
Since Dec. 15, Aleppo has been the target of an aerial offensive that has killed hundreds, mostly civilians.
At least three people were killed Tuesday in regime air raids that targeted Qadi Askar and Maysar, said the Observatory.
According to Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Wissam, the army has taken advantage of the fighting between rebels and jihadists.
“The army has deployed en masse around the east of the city, and families residing in the area have started to flee for other safer neighborhoods and villages” fearing an all-out assault, he said.
Aleppo has been devastated by fighting between government and rebel forces that began in mid-2012.
In Aleppo’s northern countryside, rebels resumed battles against the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria in Maaret al-Artiq village, the Observatory said.
Fierce fighting since Jan. 3 has pitted three large rebel alliances against ISIS, killing over 1,400 on both sides.
Meanwhile, in the south of Damascus, fighting raged between rebels and troops loyal to Assad, killing eight opposition fighters and 15 soldiers, the monitoring group added.
Separately, a double suicide bombing late Monday involved a rare attack on the hometown of the defense minister.
Two suicide bombers, one from the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, killed 13 soldiers.
The Observatory said a well-known Saudi militant who came to Syria to fight with the Nusra Front was one of the fighters who blew himself up at an army checkpoint in the village of Rahjan in the province of Hama.
Rahjan, in a remote eastern part of Hama, is the ancestral home of Defense Minister Fahd Freij, who resides in the capital.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, head of the Observatory, said, “This is a message from the Nusra fighters to Freij: ‘You cannot protect your own relatives.’”
Another Islamist rebel group, Ajnad al-Sham, also claimed participation in the Rahjan attack.
In a statement, it said the town was targeted because it was the largest base for pro-Assad militias in the area.
Abdel-Rahman said the attack by the suicide bombers, who detonated their explosives-rigged cars, sparked clashes around Rahjan between the army and rebels that raged until dawn on Tuesday.
Five Nusra fighters were killed as were three combatants from other rebel groups, he said.
The Saudi suicide bomber who died in the attack, Turki al-Ashaari, was well known by Islamists on social media websites.
His last post on his Twitter account cited “the last chapter of my life” and linked to two statements, with messages to his family, Al-Qaeda leaders and his fellow fighters.
“You should carry out martyrdom operations. Your souls are cheap, not expensive. All you must do is be sure you are killing apostates. Do not place yourself in a suspicious place,” he said in one statement. “I seek martyrdom and the house of Assad will be destroyed with me.”