The Mercury News

Syrian military pushes into Aleppo

- By Bassem Mroue

BEIRUT — Forces backing Syrian President Bashar Assad pressed their offensive Tuesday on Aleppo’s rebel-held zone from the south, after capturing areas on other fronts in recent days. As reinforcem­ents arrived, including Shiite fighters from Iraq, the strategy appeared to be to retake rebel-held areas bit by bit, backed by massive Russian airpower, rather than risk a potentiall­y costly allout ground battle.

Tuesday’s offensive on the city’s besieged rebelheld eastern neighborho­ods came a day after Washington suspended direct U.S.-Russian talks on a Syria cease-fire — a move U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry blamed on Russia’s rejection of diplomacy in favor of helping Assad’s government achieve a military victory over the rebels.

The latest tactic of whittling away at rebel-held areas of Aleppo rather than launching an all-out offensive has proved successful in the past: The government reasserted control of the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, and most of the central city of Homs using the strategy.

“The Syrian army and its allies are in a sustained offensive to recapture rebel-held eastern Aleppo,” wrote Robert Ford, a veteran diplomat and former ambassador to Syria.

“Unless the balance on the ground drasticall­y shifts, the Assad regime will eventually retake from opposition fighters all of Aleppo and the outlying districts of Damascus,” wrote Ford, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “This may take months, but the balance is certainly in the Syrian government’s favor.”

“Aleppo is ... the Syrian crisis and its liberation will end plans to divide Syria,” agreed Amin Hoteit, a former Lebanese army general and expert on military and strategic affairs.

Syrian troops and their allies have laid siege to rebel-held parts of Aleppo since July 17, except for a few weeks when the militants were able to break it in August, until it was reimposed in early September. Soon after the government opened a corridor for civilians and fighters to move to government-held parts of the city, and dozens of people and gunmen crossed after a general amnesty was offered by authoritie­s.

Since a cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia ended on Sept. 19, rebel-held neighborho­ods where 275,000 people live have been subjected to some of the worst bombardmen­t by Russian and Syrian warplanes since fighting began in 2011. Hospitals have been among the hardest-hit targets.

At least 420 people have been killed and more than 1,000 wounded in and around Aleppo since the cease-fire collapsed, according to the Britainbas­ed Syrian Observator­y for Human Rights. Most of the deaths were in eastern Aleppo, where scores of buildings were demolished by Russian and Syrian airstrikes.

“The regime is bombing civilians because of its inability to storm Aleppo for years,” said opposition activist Abu Firas al-Halaby, adding that talk of the imminent arrival of reinforcem­ents was part of a “psychologi­cal war” against the rebels.

The Syrian government is backed in the Aleppo battle by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Palestinia­n Quds Brigade and Iraq’s Shiite al-Nujaba militia, among others.

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