Syrian rebels Sunday broke a three-week government hold on the embattled city of Aleppo, a major military setback for forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Rebel forces, including the Levant Conquest Front, formerly al-Qaida's Syrian branch, surged through regime territory, pushing government forces out of military colleges and other locations they had held. The war media arm of Lebanon's Hezbollah, which has been fighting with Syrian forces, acknowledged the rebels' advance on Aleppo's besieged eastern neighborhoods, home to about 250,000 people.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the independent British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the rebel gains were some of the most significant in the five-year-long Syrian conflict.
"Despite more than 600 Russian strikes," he said, "the regime forces were not able to hold on to their positions."
The advance was marked by celebrations among civilians and rebel fighters, but there were fears of food shortages in western areas still held by government forces.
Abdel Rahman said the rebel success in the eastern reaches of Aleppo endangers the estimated 1.2 million people living in districts controlled by the Assad troops.
"The western districts of Aleppo are now besieged," he said. "There are no safe routes for civilians in government-held districts to use to get into or out of the city."
Pope Francis condemned the continued fighting in Syria, saying that "it's unacceptable that so many helpless — including many children— must pay the price of the conflict, the price of closed hearts and the lack of desire for peace by the powerful."
He expressed particular concern for the suffering in Aleppo.