BEIRUT, Aug 6, (Agencies): Syrian rebels claimed on Saturday they broke a threeweek government siege of second city of Aleppo, turning the tables on Russian-backed regime forces who are now on the defensive. To the northeast, a Western- backed alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters scored a major victory against the Islamic State group in the town of Manbij after a fierce two month battle.
The developments have rocked the key northern province of Aleppo, a microcosm of Syria’s chaotic multi-front war that has killed more than 280,000 people. Rebel and regime forces have fought for control of the provincial capital of the same name since mid-2012, transforming the former economic powerhouse into a divided, bombed-out city.
Opposition fighters, Islamists and jihadists have waged fierce assaults since July 31 to end the siege of some 250,000 people in Aleppo’s eastern districts by government forces. On Saturday, rebel groups successfully broke the siege by opening a new route into the city from the southwest, opposition officials said. “Rebels break Aleppo’s siege,” wrote the Istanbulbased National Coalition on Twitter.
The Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham said on Twitter that rebels had seized control of Ramussa on the southwestern edges of the city and thereby “opened the route to Aleppo”. Al-Manar, the television station of the Lebanese group Hezbollah which has men fighting alongside Syrian government forces, denied that Ramussa had fallen or that the siege had been broken. Riad Hijab, head of the broad opposition body the High Negotiations Committee, tweeted, “The liberation of Ramussa and the breaking of the siege are a good omen for Syria’s revolution.”
An AFP journalist in eastern Aleppo city said joyful residents were out on the streets and shooting celebratory gunfire into the air. “Days ago, I was only thinking about how to get a bite to eat,” said Ahmad Adna, a 46-year-old resident of eastern Aleppo. “Now I’m more optimistic after the (rebel) Army of Conquest’s advance. I hope today will be the last day of the siege.” Earlier Saturday, rebels and allied jihadists captured swathes of a military academy south of the city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The monitor said more than 500 rebels and government fighters had been killed in the offensive since it was launched on Sunday, as well as 130 civilians.
They included at least seven civilians killed on Saturday in rebel shelling of the regime-held neighbourhood of Hamdaniyeh, according to both the Observatory and Syrian state news agency SANA. The former Al-Nusra Front — renamed the Fateh al-Sham Front after breaking from al-Qaeda — said on Saturday that rebels pushing out from inside Aleppo city had linked up with those on the outskirts. Drone footage posted by the group online showed a series of explosions on the edges of Aleppo, followed by massive columns of billowing black smoke.
Pictures obtained by AFP show a crumpled body, reportedly of a regime fighter, lying next to artillery pieces lined up in a building newly captured by jihadists. Abdel Rahman said the advance had left the regime forces “in a very difficult position despite Russian air support”. “This is an existential battle. Whoever wins it will win Aleppo,” he said. State media said the army launched a counter-offensive in the afternoon and deployed reinforcements to take on “thousands of terrorist fighters”. An army officer told state television that troops advanced in the areas seized by rebels and were inflicting “heavy losses” on them. “Of course I have faith in the army, but I can’t help being scared. Food is already getting more expensive and the coming days risk being very difficult,” said a 34-year-old resident of a governmentheld western quarter of Aleppo. “We are thinking about how to leave,” he told AFP.