The Observer reports: After many scares and several false starts, the crucial battle for Syria’s second biggest city has begun.
For more than a year the southern edges of rebel-held Aleppo have been a wasteland. Regime soldiers have been fixed in their positions several kilometres from the battered city limits, while rebels have shored up defences on their side of the ruins.
Now, three weeks into Russia’s intervention in the Syrian war, there is movement on one of the conflict’s most static fronts. And weary opposition forces don’t like what they are seeing.
“The regime advanced six kilometres [on Friday] and they took three villages,” said Zakaria Malafji, a member of the Free Syrian Army inside Aleppo. “The Russians showered us with bombs even in the civilian areas. They want to clear everything so the regime tanks and even the soldiers on foot can advance.”
Pitched against the mix of Islamists and non-ideological rebels in the rubble is the strongest force that Bashar al-Assad has been able to call on at any point during the four-and-a-half-year war. An Iranian military brigade is stationed around 20km south, along with hundreds of Hezbollah fighters, Shia militias from Iraq and the Syrian Army.
A senior US official on Friday said the Pentagon estimated the Iranian strength at 2,000 officers and soldiers – Tehran’s largest contribution to a battle and a signal that it is no longer shy to acknowledge the fact that its troops are actively defending the regime.
Straight from a grinding battle in the mountains near Damascus, Lebanon’s Hezbollah has also travelled to Aleppo en masse. “Every one of the brothers I know has gone there,” said one resident of the Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, a Hezbollah stronghold. “This is the first time they’ve all disappeared like that. They’re even shortening their vacation times.”
Rebels inside Aleppo say they have the weapons and the stamina to keep their enemies from seizing the eastern half of the city they have controlled since July 2012. They say that large numbers of anti-tank missiles supplied by their allies – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US – have reached them in recent days and warn that they have had three years to prepare their defences. [Continue reading…]