After several false starts and scares, the Syrian army and its allies, backed by Russian airstrikes, have made a major offensive on the city of Aleppo.
For over a year, Aleppo’s rebel-controlled southern reaches have been in a stalemate. Syrian regime soldiers have been in fixed positions miles from Aleppo city limits, where rebels have maintained defensive positions.
Prior to the civil war, Aleppo was considered Syria’s economic hub, but it has suffered catastrophic destruction since the war began.
On Oct. 18, Syrian activists with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that around 60 people were killed during the Syrian army’s advance in the southern countryside outside of Aleppo. The opposing belligerents, according to the activists, are “rebels and Islamist factions.” The attack took place amid Syrian and Russian airstrikes.
According to the activists, “military experts” from Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Iran are backing the Syrian troops making advances on Aleppo. The army and its allies took back three villages during fierce fighting over the weekend in which at least 17 Islamist fighters and eight soldiers were killed, according to the rights group. Troops are also advancing on Kweires air base, located east of Aleppo, to break a siege by ISIS.
Also on Sunday, an Iraqi Shiite militia that operates in Iraq and Syria, posted a photo of its fighters posing in Aleppo Province with Qassem Soleimani, a major general of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the leader of Iran’s Quds Force. The photo was posted on the militia’s Facebook, but it’s unclear when it was taken.
Soleimani has been crucial “in organizing Syrian and Iraqi militias, as well as Hezbollah, to battle Sunni jihadists and allied rebels in Syria,” wrote the Long War Journal. “He has played a similar role in Iraq, where he has organized, trained, and equipped Shiite militias along the lines of Lebanese Hezbollah to fight the Islamic State.”
Likely buoyed by Russian air support, large numbers of Hezbollah terrorists have gone to Aleppo to fight.
“Every one of the brothers I know has gone there,” said an unnamed resident of Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, considered a Hezbollah stronghold, according to the Guardian newspaper. “This is the first time they’ve all disappeared like that. They’re even shortening their vacation times.”
Three weeks ago, Russia entered the Syrian war, joining Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States in directly taking part in fighting. Russia has mainly carried out airstrikes against what it describes as “terrorists,” who are namely militant groups opposed to the Syrian government. Russia was previously involved by supplying arms to the Syrian military and armed militias.
Human rights observers see Russia’s involvement differently. Last week, Russian airstrikes in northern Homs killed at least 17 civilians, which “should be investigated for possible violations of the laws of war,” Human Rights Watch said in a report.
The U.S. Defense Department said Russian airstrikes, which started Sept. 30, have had little effect in aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops on the ground. Instead, they’ve helped ISIS fighters in their bid to take Aleppo.
“I haven’t seen any indications that the Assad regime has been able to make progress based on the Russian airstrikes,” said Centcom spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren, according to a transcript released Oct. 13. “What we have seen, though … we have seen [Islamic State] make progress based on Russian airstrikes.”
He added that Russian airstrikes are “reckless” and “indiscriminate.”
On Sunday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow’s air war is an attempt to protect its own national interests after reports of thousands of fighters from Russia have joined the battle alongside ISIS in Syria.
“The president [Vladimir Putin] said this, ‘It’s obvious that if we don’t destroy these terrorists there, they will come to Russia,'” Medvedev said, quoted on the Russian government’s website.