As­sad’s forces make ma­jor gains in Aleppo

Baltimore Sun - - WORLD - By Zeina Karam and Philip Issa

BEIRUT — Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces cap­tured more than a third of op­po­si­tion­held eastern Aleppo on Mon­day, touch­ing off a wave of panic and flight from the be­sieged en­clave as rebel de­fenses in the coun­try’s largest city rapidly col­lapsed.

The dra­matic gains marked an in­flec­tion point in Syria’s nearly 6-year-old con­flict, threat­en­ing to dis­lodge armed op­po­nents of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad from their last ma­jor ur­ban strong­hold.

Re­claim­ing all of Aleppo, Syria’s for­mer com­mer­cial cap­i­tal, would be the big­gest prize of the war for As­sad. It would put his forces in con­trol of the coun­try’s four largest cities as well as the coastal re­gion, and cap a year of steady gov­ern­ment ad­vances.

It also would bol­ster his po­si­tion and mo­men­tum just as a new U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion is tak­ing hold, free­ing thousands of his troops and al­lied mili­ti­a­men to move on to other bat­tles around the coun­try.

Charles Lis­ter, a se­nior fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton-based Mid­dle East In­sti­tute, said the op­po­si­tion’s losses in Aleppo are the big­gest since 2012.

“Aleppo city it­self has also been a con­sis­tent base of moder­ate op­po­si­tion ac­tiv­ity, so its col­lapse spells what could be an ex­is­ten­tial blow to the moder­ate op­po­si­tion from which it’ll likely strug­gle to re­cover,” he said.

Ever since it joined the up­ris­ing four years ago, eastern Aleppo tried to make it­self a model for a Syria with­out As­sad. It elected lo­cal lead­ers, ran its own ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and built an econ­omy trad­ing with the rebel-held coun­try­side and Tur­key.

Its res­i­dents kept life go­ing amid fe­ro­cious fight­ing with the pro-gov­ern­ment western dis­tricts, but four years of bat­tles and airstrikes have re­duced en­tire blocks to rub­ble.

Helped by mas­sive Rus­sian air power and thousands of Ira­nian-backed Shi­ite mili­tia fight­ers from Le­banon, Iraq and Iran, As­sad re­newed his push for Aleppo this month. The be­sieged eastern dis­tricts came un­der in­tense airstrikes that killed hun­dreds in the past two weeks.

More than 250,000 peo­ple are be­lieved trapped there with lim­ited ac­cess to food, wa­ter and med­i­cal sup­plies. They in­clude more than 100,000 chil­dren, the U.N. says.

“It is sting­ing cold, food is scarce and peo­ple are shaken in the streets,” Mo­ham­mad Zein Khan­daqani, a mem­ber of the Med­i­cal Coun­cil in Aleppo, told The As­so­ci­ated Press in a text mes­sage from eastern Aleppo.

Some are tak­ing refuge in mosques while oth­ers moved to homes of dis­placed peo­ple in safer ar­eas, he added.

Thousands of civil­ians, many of whom had re­fused to leave de­spite the suf­fo­cat­ing siege and bom­bard­ment that tested the A fighter loyal to the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment on Mon­day over­looks Aleppo, where rebel de­fenses rapidly col­lapsed. lim­its of en­durance, fled the en­clave over the week­end and Mon­day.

“We’ve been un­der siege for the past three months,” said Alaed­dine Hi­lal, a 45-year-old trader who lives be­tween the Hul­luk and Haidariyeh neigh­bor­hoods, speak­ing by phone. “I couldn’t find a tomato or potato, or even an egg to eat. There were no nu­tri­ents left.”

Pro-gov­ern­ment forces be­gan a push last week ap­par­ently aimed at slic­ing the ter­ri­tory in two. Over the week­end, rebel de­fenses buck­led un­der si­mul­ta­ne­ous ad­vances by the gov­ern­ment and Kur­dish-led forces, send­ing peo­ple flee­ing in­side the di­vided city.

Troops moved quickly Satur­day into the Hanano neigh­bor­hood, the first time they had pushed that far into eastern Aleppo since 2012. On Mon­day, they moved into the Sakhour dis­trict, putting much of the north­ern part of the city’s be­sieged re­bel­held ar­eas un­der gov­ern­ment con­trol.

With the cap­ture of Sakhour, the rebels are now boxed in mostly in cen­tral and south­east­ern Aleppo, en­cir­cled by gov­ern­ment troops.

Am­mar Sakkar, a spokesman for the Fas­taqim brigade, said the rebels would con­tinue to fight.

GE­ORGE OURFALIAN/GETTY-AFP

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