The Syrian army, aided by Lebanese Hezbollah militants, captured several villages near Aleppo in an attempt to encircle rebel fighters and cut off their supply routes, a monitor said Tuesday.
In their second major offensive in a week, government troops were able to cut off a highway used by rebels as a supply route from Aleppo, in the country’s north, to the Turkish border, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Observatory, which tracks the Syrian conflict using sources on the ground, said at least 18 opposition fighters and several Syrian troops and pro-government gunmen were killed in fighting Tuesday.
The army also took villages including Bashkuwi and Sifat, while fighting raged in Hardatain and Ratain, the Observatory said.
The Observatory's chief, Rami Abdurrahman, said government forces and Hezbollah have been bringing in reinforcement into Aleppo province for days in preparations for the attack.
The government’s actions have huge implications, Abdurrahman said. “It is very important, because if they continue like this, they will completely cut the supply lines for the future,” he said.
"The regime troops have two goals in the area: to cut the road leading from Aleppo to the Turkish border, which is the key supply road for the rebels, and to open the way to Nubol and Zahraa,” Abdurrahman said.
Nubol and Zahraa have been under rebel siege for more than 18 months, and pro-government militants inside the villages have repelled several attacks.
There was no word from Syrian state media about the offensive. State TV reported that rebels shelled government-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, killing at least five people and wounding 15.
Aleppo is Syria's second city and is at the forefront of clashes between pro-government forces and a range of insurgents, including Islamist brigades, al-Qaida's hardline Syria wing Nusra Front and Western-backed units. The city has been divided by neighborhood between government and opposition forces since mid-2012.
The offensive comes on the same day that United Nations peace envoy Staffan de Mistura is to brief the Security Council on his meeting last week with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, in which they discussed the envoy's proposal to freeze hostilities in Aleppo.
De Mistura has been working since October on a plan to negotiate “local freezes” in Syria, starting in Aleppo. But army progress since then has reduced the chances of a truce, diplomats told Reuters.
More than 210,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, which will enter its fifth year next month, the Observatory has estimated, with clashes between numerous factions regularly flaring across the country.
Meanwhile, the United States and Turkey tentatively agreed Tuesday on a deal to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
The State Department gave no details on the agreement which it says it hopes to sign soon.
But Pentagon officials have said they hope to send up to 1,000 U.S. forces to train 5,000 Syrian rebel fighters a year, beginning in March.
The training would take place in Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
Some material for this report came from Reuters, AFP and AP.