Syrian military officials insist rebels have failed to lift the Assad regime’s weeks-long siege of Aleppo, arguing the insurgents have managed only to breach government lines by opening a thin corridor in the southwest. But the ferocity of government and Russian airstrikes the past 24 hours suggests the rebels have managed to deliver a major blow, one the regime now is desperately trying to reverse.
The rebel breach will likely complicate high-level discussions between the United States and Russia on the targeting of jihadist militias in the war-shattered country. The rebel offensive was led by a jihadist militia, Jabhat al-Nusra that announced last month it is cutting ties with al-Qaida.
The rebranded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has aimed to expand its influence over other rebel armed groups. Its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, said in an audio message Friday the success of the then unfolding rebel offensive in Syria’s second largest city is due in large part to “the coalescence and unity of the factions against the enemy.”
The offensive saw jihadists and hardline Islamists coordinating with more moderate insurgent groups aligned with the Fatah Halab Operations Room featuring Western-backed Free Syrian Army militias. In all, 22 insurgent groups have been involved in the week-long offensive, a-first of-its-kind for the rebels.
The offensive has consisted of two prongs, rebels attacking from the city’s eastern districts into the government-held southwest and insurgents mounting a push from the countryside west of Aleppo into the city.
The United States has been pushing Russia to distinguish between moderate rebel groups and jihadists with its blistering airstrikes on the insurgents.
The Kremlin has long insisted all those fighting to oust their longtime ally President Bashar al-Assad are terrorists, mimicking the Syrian government’s position.
The Syrian government’s news agency, Sana, disputed Monday rebel claims of having broken the siege.
Quoting military sources, Sana said regime forces had managed to isolate rebel factions who had “infiltrated” several military academies in southwest Aleppo and are now engaged in mopping up resistance. Syria officials argued also the corridor the rebels had opened into the besieged rebel-held eastern part of the city had “not been secured by the terrorists and is still controlled by Syrian fire.”
But observers dismiss government claims. Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, argued the breach amounted to one of the most significant defeats dealt to the government since the conflict started in March 2011.
The breach of government lines prompted celebrations in Aleppo and opposition group video posted online appears to confirm rebel claims, as does Syrian government video showing waves of airstrikes on the southwest.
A convoy of half-a-dozen rebel pick-up trucks laden with fruit and vegetables entered the besieged area Sunday through the newly-opened corridor, activists and residents told VOA. Though not enough provisions to feed the up to 300,000 people estimated to be living in rebel-held districts, the convoy amounted to a symbolic act of defiance.
With fierce government bombardment it is unlikely the rebels can transport significant amounts of food and medicine.
Rebels say their advance is far from over. They say they have seized a large chunk of the Western district of Ramouseh, blocking an important supply route for the government.
Fearing the 1.5 million residents living in the Western part of the city could come under siege by the rebels, government forces sped dozens of trucks loaded with food and fuel to government-held districts, according to the Syrian Observatory.
The rebel offensive has buoyed the spirits of the political leaders of the rebellion.
Anas Alabdah, president of the Syrian Coalition, said the spectacular gains made by rebel fighters conveyed a clear message to the Assad regime, Iran and Russia, “they will not be able to defeat the Syrian people or dictate the terms of a settlement.”
The Army of Conquest, the coalition of rebel groups led Jabhat Fatah al-Sham which in March 2015 managed to take control of Idlib province to the north-west of Aleppo, said in a statement Sunday that it would “double the number of fighters for this next battle.” It announced it had “started a new phase to liberate all of Aleppo.” The coalition added: ”We will not rest until we raise the flag of the conquest over Aleppo's citadel.”
That may be beyond the rebels's abilities, say military analysts, and the government and foreign Shi’ite militias loyal to the regime are moving fast to try to contain the breach. The Iraqi paramilitary force, Harakat al-Nujaba, said in a statement it is dispatching 2,000 fighters to help drive back insurgents.