KHAN AL ASSAL, SYRIA —
Syrian government forces are reported to be preparing for a major offensive on rebel-held parts of the northern city of Aleppo and its surroundings. In northern Syria, Islamist opposition fighters massed in a strategic town south of Aleppo.
Khan al Assal, off Highway 5, eight kilometers southwest of Aleppo - Syria's commercial hub besieged by war.
There has been fierce fighting for control of this strategic town. Islamist rebel fighters navigate the ground through holes they've picked in garden walls. They don't know where the government sniping positions are, and which paths are safe to walk down.
Khan al Assal was once a pleasure retreat for Aleppo's business elite, but after weeks of fighting much of the town is in ruins.
Hardline Islamist fighters have occupied palaces, which they said were previously in the hands of Alawite pro-government militias, the Shabiha.
They say graffiti of government forces and their playing cards litter the rooms.
"These belong to the regime, these are their cards. God is the greatest," one fighter said.
Rebels watch for movement in the government lines, occasionally firing their sniper rifles at nothing in particular. State media said this week government forces eliminated "terrorists" in nearby farms.
Rebel commander Colonel Abu Bakr says control of Khan al Assal is a stepping stone towards Aleppo's military academy. He predicts victory.
"When Khan al Assal falls, the next step will be the military academy which is the biggest base in the city of Aleppo. It's where the regime helicopters refuel and it's also their operations center. It's considered as the last main base in the city of Aleppo for the regime," Bakr said.
On the roads west of Aleppo, international Jihadists from Russia, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are visible.
Witnesses say that at a nearby theme park, Magic World, Islamists had cut the heads off of the statues, which some conservative Muslims consider idolatrous.
Commander Abu Bakr was asked about their presence.
"I don't want to talk about that," Bakr said.
Later, the colonel said that Jihadists were coming to Syria because Western governments hadn't provided enough military aid.
As battles for Aleppo loom, the U.S. is considering the possibility of sending weapons to non-jihadist rebel groups.