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Pro-Assad Militias Close in on Rebel-held Aleppo

Pro-government forces, backed by Russian air power, are very close to encircling opposition-held Aleppo. Syria’s Deeply’s correspondent in the city gives a firsthand account of how this “decisive” battle has unfolded over the past few days – and speaks with rebel military sources and activists.

Written byTamer Osman Published on Feb. 5, 2016 Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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Syrian government troops, backed by Iranian and Iraqi militias and the Russian air force, are very close to capturing opposition-controlled neighborhoods in Aleppo.

Pro-government forces have taken control of the village of Marasteh Khan in northern, rural Aleppo, and are now only 750 yards (700m) away from the towns of Nubbul and al-Zahraa, Shiite communities that are largely loyal to the government.

For the past three days, armed rebel groups in northern Aleppo have been engaged in fierce ground battles against Iranian, Afghan, Iraqi and Hezbollah militias.

“Russian aircraft and regime helicopters have been shelling us night and day. We fought valiantly and tried to keep the regime forces out of Hardatnin and Dweir al-Zaytoun, but we could not withstand the incessant shelling,” said a fighter with the Levant Front, a coalition of rebel groups based in northern Aleppo. “We also fought courageously in Marasteh Khan. We killed around 100 of their men, but lost many of our men as well, and they captured one of our men.”

The Levant Front fighter said that as of Thursday evening, the militias had not been able to break the rebel siege of Nubbul and al-Zahraa.

“But some groups were able to infiltrate the two towns. The battle continues,” he said. “We are stationed right now in the village of Mayer, which is their next target.”

The Levant Front’s first concern is to prevent government loyalists trapping civilians within the opposition-held neighborhoods of the city, he said, separating the area from its rural northern areas and from vital supply routes coming from Turkey.

“This is a decisive battle for us,” the rebel fighter said. “The regime is working on political gains and alliances in Geneva, and we are fighting these honorable battles here. Aleppo is the heart of the Syrian revolution and over our dead bodies will we let it fall to the hands of the regime.”

The military campaign in rural northern Aleppo began on February 1. Government forces launched heavy artillery shells, while the Russian air force conducted hundreds of air raids and launched surface-to-surface missiles.

The attacks targeted rebel sites in the villages of Bashkoy, Harditnin, and Dweir al-Zaytoun. Intense raids by the Russian air force forced the rebels to withdraw from these villages, which opened the way for the government forces to advance on the town Marasteh Khan, which had been one of the most important rebel defensive positions in the area.

The fall of Marasteh Khan placed the city of Aleppo under partial siege, and opened the way for government forces to reach Nubbul and al-Zahraa, which have been under siege by the rebels for almost four years.

Early Wednesday morning, Russian and Syrian warplanes launched more than 150 new air raids on Marasteh Khan, followed by heavy artillery shelling by the regime forces located in the town of Harditnin.

By Wednesday evening, fighting between the rebels and the government broke out in the town, killing dozens on both sides.

Later the same day, the Russian air force launched another series of air raids, which forced the rebels to withdraw from Marasteh Khan to Mayer, a little town next to the pro-government towns of Nubbul and al-Zahraa.

The government’s infantry troops managed to make their way through agricultural lands and take up positions only 750 yards from Nubbul and al-Zahraa by taking advantage of confusion among the rebels, who had to withdraw to new positions.

The rebels have now declared a state of military emergency in Aleppo, demanding all fighters and administrators join the “decisive” battle.

According to relief organizations, nearly 800,000 people live within the neighborhoods controlled by opposition forces in the city of Aleppo.

“The situation has become very bad. Aleppo is currently semi-besieged and all roads are cut off,” said the media activist Mujahid Abu al-Joud. “People are scared, and all shops were emptied of their goods because of the large turnout to buy necessary foodstuffs.”

“Aleppo will not hold up under a long siege like other areas because these neighborhoods are densely populated. Currently no one can get out of or into the city, and everybody is waiting to see what is going to happen in the next few days,” the activist added.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 21 people were killed on Thursday in residential neighborhoods of Aleppo city, while many others were critically wounded or are or stuck under rubble.

Tens of thousands of people have fled their villages over the past three days. Most are headed toward the Turkish border, although Turkish authorities continue to close their borders with the opposition-controlled areas, raising the specter of a new refugee crisis.

Top image: Free Syrian Army fighters take up their positions close to a military base in northern Syria, on Dec. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)