BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces are concentrating firepower and ground attacks in a drive to cut rebel supply lines to the divided city of Aleppo, as rebel groups struggle to prevent infighting in the north – and the U.S.-led airstrikes against jihadists – from weakening their ranks.
Government forces on Friday pounded the strategic Handarat hill north of the city with a surface-to-surface missile while clashes raged on in at least three other parts of Aleppo and its outskirts, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Regime control of the Handarat region will let it clamp down on a supply line to the rebels from Turkey.
Warnings about the imminent collapse of rebel-held Aleppo have been sounded throughout the year – both before and after the launch of U.S.-led airstrikes targeting Al-Qaeda rivals ISIS and the Nusra Front and other jihadist groups, mainly in northern and eastern parts of the country.
Rebel commanders and opposition politicians have warned repeatedly that the airstrikes have only relieved pressure on the Syrian regime by targeting several militias that cooperate with them in the war against President Bashar Assad, although they do not object to strikes against the extremist group ISIS.
But observers say this week’s surprise defeat by Nusra of two mainstream, U.S.-equipped rebel groups from the Free Syrian Army – the Syria Rebel Front and the Hazm Movement – in next-door Idlib province only helps the regime as it seeks to impose a blockade on rebel-held Aleppo.
An anti-regime activist in Aleppo told The Daily Star that rebel groups are largely cooperating, for now, both inside and outside the city. Several sources say that the rebels – from Islamists to non-ideological groups – are scrambling to “isolate” the Aleppo theater from the repercussions of developments in Idlib province.
The regime has several factors in its favor, the activist continued. These include its heavy reliance on Shiite paramilitary groups, with Afghan nationals forming the latest, noticeable addition to the regime’s array of paramilitary allies.
“There’s also the fear that the regime will use chemical weapons, or poison gas, since there are confirmed reports about this coming from pro-regime areas of Aleppo,” he continued.
The regime has been widely accused of using chlorine gas bombardments to aid its recent taking of territory in the Damascus suburbs, and in the strategic highway town of Morek in Hama province.
“We’ve confirmed that the regime has equipped its forces with gas masks,” the activist said.
Anti-regime groups say the regime has used gas, usually believed to be chlorine, in several dozen instances this year.
A spokesman for the opposition-in-exile National Coalition on Thursday condemned international silence over what he claimed was the latest such incident, in the Jobar suburb of Damascus.
The activist echoed the belief that the regime’s leading military officer in ground operations, Col. Suheil al-Hasan, was directing his attention toward Aleppo, meaning that a serious push was imminent.
However, pro-regime social media networks on Friday posted photographs purporting to show Hasan in rural Homs province, far to the south, leading the regime attempt to retake the Shaer natural gas field from ISIS jihadists.
The regime has also incurred significant casualties recently at the hands of rebel groups in the provinces of Rural Damascus, Deraa and Qunaitra.
As one prominent, pro-opposition social media commentator put it on Friday, “Northern rebels are divided and losing, southern rebels are united and winning.”
Inside Aleppo, the neighborhoods of Bustan al-Qasr and Kallaseh were shaken this week when an apparently isolated incident of rebel-versus-rebel fighting claimed several lives.
The incident was touched off when a street vendor’s cursing – blasphemous in the eyes of hard-line Islamists – prompted members of the powerful Ahrar al-Sham militia to arrest him.
The vendor, however, was backed by members of the so-called “Nahlawieh” group, who hail from the village of Nahle in Idlib province. The group’s members belong to several rebel factions, including the Hazm Movement.
When the militiamen intervened to prevent the vendor’s arrest a gunbattle broke out, killing an Ahrar al-Sham commander and two of his fighters.
The incident touched off several days of tension as Ahrar al-Sham members tried to capture the rival militia members. In the end, several fighters fled the area while others surrendered, either to Ahrar al-Sham or other, possibly more sympathetic groups, according to the Britain-based Observatory.
The Aleppo Media Center anti-regime activist group said residents of Bustan al-Qasr were angry at the Nahlawieh gang for their repeated “exploitation” of their status as rebel fighters to engage in criminal activities.
In the wake of the incident, the “united” military command for Aleppo, which represents the majority of rebel groups, announced a total ban on the carrying of weapons by civilians in the city, although such directives are probably impossible to enforce in any systematic fashion.
It added that the Hazm Movement was “innocent” of any blame for the deadly clashes.
Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, a U.S.-based adviser to opposition groups, believes that a no-fly zone, and not direct U.S. military involvement, is essential for the rebel effort in Aleppo.
“The encirclement of Aleppo by the Assad regime would reverberate across Syria, driving up support for Nusra in the south, discouraging opposition to ISIS in the east,” he wrote, in an open letter published by The Huffington Post.
“A no-fly zone would remove the Assad regime’s ability to launch barrel bomb attacks, which have proven to be a decisive strategic advantage in Aleppo. One way or another, the U.S. needs to inflict defeats on Assad in Aleppo, or the anti-ISIS strategy is over.”
Ghanem said that since the coalition air strikes began, “Assad has only come closer to strangling Aleppo. Syrians today are not convinced of American intentions, and as a consequence, Nusra is gaining popularity.”