Syrian regime hits rebel offensive in Aleppo with heavy airstrikes

The fighting marks the most intense rebel attack in three years in the bitterly contested city.

Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
A man walks with the aid of a crutch past damaged buildings in the old city of Aleppo in late June.

Syrian government forces hit the city of Aleppo with heavy airstrikes late Thursday and into Friday in an attempt to push back a rebel offensive earlier Thursday.

That offensive marked the heaviest insurgent attack in three years of fighting in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, Reuters reports.  Both the initial rebel attack and the return airstrikes suggest the city’s strategic importance to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as it struggles to maintain a toehold in northwestern Syria in the face of strong rebel advances across the region.

As Reuters reports:

Aleppo, 50 km (30 miles) south of the Turkish border, was Syria's most populous city before the country's descent into civil war. It has been partitioned into areas of government and insurgent control since 2012.

Aleppo is of vital importance to Assad, and losing it would further entrench a de facto partition of Syria between western areas still governed from Damascus and the rest of the country run by a patchwork of militias.  

The fighting this week in Aleppo comes on the heels of major losses for Mr. Assad at the hands of several rebel groups in recent months, reports Agence France-Presse.

Of particular concern to Assad is the loss of large chunks of territory in the northwestern province of Idlib, which is now largely under the control of a rebel alliance calling itself the Army of Conquest, led by Al-Nusra. Those incursions have been heavily supported by Turkey, which told Reuters it had intensified its military presence along its Syrian border in response to the events in Aleppo in recent days.

Thursday’s rebel advance killed five fighters and four civilians across several districts of the city, as well as injuring 70 more, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group monitoring the war. As the BBC reports:

On Thursday, Islamist rebel groups and al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, announced the creation of a new alliance, Ansar al-Sharia. They promised to "liberate the city of Aleppo" and to govern it according to Islamic law.

Fighters later fired mortars and rockets at western districts of the city controlled by government forces, the Syrian Observatory reported. 

The UK-based group said much of the fighting was focused on the frontline in Jamiyat al-Zahra, a heavily-defended area that houses several major security compounds. 

For its part, the Syrian government claims rebels used so-called “hell cannons,” informal mortar bombs made out of cooking cylinders, in their bombardments of government-held positions. State news agency Sana reported government estimates that more than 100 “terrorists” were killed in the airstrikes overnight, the BBC says.

Turkey, meanwhile, said that although it had intensified its presence on the border, it would not be involved in the fighting in Aleppo.

“No one should have the expectation that Turkey will enter Syria tomorrow or in the near future,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a local broadcaster late Thursday, reports Al Bawaba, a Jordanian news agency. 

Elsewhere in Syria, Assad’s forces have recently ceded ground to a patchwork of rebel groups — including the central city of Palmyra, now controlled by the self-described Islamic State, and southern territories ruled by an insurgent alliance called the “Southern Front,” Reuters reports.

Meanwhile, heavy fighting continues between government forces and the Islamic Sate in the city of Hasaka, in the northeast, and the city of Deraa in the south.

Aleppo, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, has been the site of near-constant fighting since 2012. In addition to the thousands of residents killed, the clashes have destroyed nearly two-thirds of the city’s Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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