AMMAN (Reuters) - Fighting is intensifying in northern Syria, where rebels say President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies are preparing an offensive after success last week in seizing a strategic town further south.
The capture by Assad’s forces and Hezbollah of the town of Qusair, which controls vital supply routes across Syrian and with Lebanon, is a sign of reversing momentum after the rebels seized swathes of the country in the second half of last year.
Battles raged on Sunday near Al-Nubbul and Zahra, two rural Shi‘ite Muslim enclaves outside the commercial hub Aleppo in Syria’s north, and intensified in Aleppo itself.
“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.
The civil war now pits Assad, from the Alawite offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam, and Shi‘ite Hezbollah against mainly Sunni Muslim rebel groups. Assad is backed by Shi‘ite Iran and armed by Russia. The rebels are armed by Sunni Arab countries Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and backed by Turkey and the West.
Much of the north near the Turkish border has been held by rebels since last year and frontlines inside Aleppo itself have been largely static for months.
Activists said at least ten rebel fighters and six loyalist troops were killed in intensifying combat in the last 24 hours in Aleppo, Syria’s largest metropolis, which has been divided into rebel-held and loyalist controlled sectors for a year.
An article in the semi-official Syrian al-Watan daily said the Syrian army was “deploying heavily in the countryside near Aleppo in preparation for a battles that will be fought inside the city and on its outskirts.”
“Besieged areas will be freed in the first stages and troops which have been on the defensive will go on the offensive,” the article said.
Sheikh said the army has been using helicopters to re-enforce Nubbul and Zahra with loyalist troops including Hezbollah fighters and recruits from Iraq. There was no independent confirmation of any Hezbollah presence near Aleppo.
Hezbollah has pledged to fight alongside Assad until victory in the Syrian war, in which at least 80,000 people have been killed. It does not comment on the specific activities of its fighters in Syria.
The capture of Qusair restored a crucial land link between Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon and loyalist forces dug into the capital Damascus and in Alawite areas near the coast.
Abu Mujahed, a member of the Sham News Network opposition monitoring group, said rebel fighters foiled a Hezbollah-backed incursion north of Aleppo that appeared designed to break a rebel siege on a military airport in the town of Minnig, near the Zahra and Nubbul.
Rebels have also beefed up their defenses along a back road leading south from Aleppo to an army base near the town of Salamiyeh, from where the army could send armored columns to Aleppo, he said.
In a sign of the rising sectarian fervor in the conflict, a rebel spokesman said in a video statement that fighters surrounding Minnig airport would turn on “the heretics” in the two Shi‘ite villages after taking the airport.
Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom