Boosted by foreign Shi'ite militia, Assad's forces advance on Aleppo

AMMAN Tue Nov 12, 2013 4:56pm EST

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad carry their weapons as they walk along a road in the town of Tel Arn in Aleppo after capturing it from rebels November 12, 2013. REUTERS/George Ourfalian

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad carry their weapons as they walk along a road in the town of Tel Arn in Aleppo after capturing it from rebels November 12, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/George Ourfalian

Related Topics

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian government forces backed by foreign Shi'ite Muslim militia advanced on rebels in the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday, bent on recapturing districts from opposition brigades weakened by infighting, activists said.

They said that rebels saw the threat of President Bashar al-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 2-1/2 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 Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, 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 the Levant, another al Qaeda branch comprised mainly of foreign fighters that has been gaining ground in the north.

Opposition sources said Iraqi Shi'ite 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.

REBEL INFIGHTING

"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 over land.

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 highrise buildings in the northern Ashrafieh and Bani Zeid districts, and advanced into the two neighborhoods after close-quarter street fighting.

The Tawhid Brigades sent reinforcements to the eastern al-Naqqarin district after Assad's forces and their militia allies penetrated the area, the opposition sources said.

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 Abdelhamid, 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 help, an army base near Aleppo airport after the compound changed hands several times.

Assad is from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has controlled Syria since the 1960s.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria's increasingly sectarian conflict, pitting Alawites and Shi'ite supporters backed by Iran against mainly Sunni rebels who are supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

FILED UNDER:
We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (6)
chekovmerlin wrote:
Say, how about some SUNNI militia and armies, say from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, U.A.E? How about some Taliban from Afghanistan? How about some Chechens from Russia?

Nov 12, 2013 2:11pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Dron wrote:
lol, those you mentioned are already there since at least two years. In fact lately it seem most of the so-called “rebels” are not even Syrians. And by the way, did you know that 80% of Assad forces are made up of Sunnis, and they seem to have no problem fighting for Assad because their country is more important to them and they are not going to let it fall to some Saudi funded terrorists.

Nov 12, 2013 4:24pm EST  --  Report as abuse
RobertFrost wrote:
Attempting to ascribe the advances made by the Syrian Army to the presence of Shiite fighters is disingenuous to say the least.

Would the writer prefer Al-Qa’ida, with foreign fighters from 80 countries in the world, to take over Aleppo?

Shouldn’t the writer at least report the orientation of the groups which occupy today part of Aleppo: “Nusrah Front” and “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”?

This kind of “stealthy propaganda” is so out of date, it has stopped to be misleading readers and public opinion in the US, if only the writer remembered how more than 65% of the people in the US were against a strike on Syria.

Many must now be angry at the blatant propaganda over the last 30 months which in effect promoted the armed groups in the US, only to discover that it was Al-Qa’ida we were supporting!

The Syrian Army seems to be working on sector-by-sector basis. The near collapse of the armed groups in the South of Damascus, in the West near the port city of Lattakia, meant that additional forces could be dispatched to other fronts.

Aleppo and its countryside is a key location in the battle to fight Al-Qa’ida in the North and the North-East, as one can see in a Google map of Syria. It is therefore the next target of a full-fledged campaign – which seems to have been delayed until the Damascus region is under some control.

The writer, a Jordanian, should expect after Aleppo the border region with Jordan, which the Saudi are piping through men, money and weapons. Its campaign is next in what appears to be a progressive weakening of the armed groups aided, no doubt, by a changing international situation – which is at the heart of the conflict in Syria.

One hopes that the above would enlighten the writer and improve his skills in understanding the big military picture… May be! his

Nov 12, 2013 6:46pm EST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.

Pictures