By Michael Cruickshank, @MJ_Cruickshank
Rebel forces have launched one of the largest battles in the history of the Syrian Civil War to smash through regime lines and break the siege of Aleppo City.
Last week, the last routes out of rebel-held eastern Aleppo were closed, with between 40,000 and 300,000 rebels and civilians trapped within. There, they were faced with a stark choice: surrender or starve. To further this, Russia opened up a number of so-called ‘humanitarian corridors’, to allow civilians to safely flee, and rebels to surrender.
While the situation within Eastern Aleppo continues to be dire, a new lifeline has opened up in the form of a massive rebel offensive from the south. Forces loyal to the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) and Fatah Halab (Aleppo Conquest) coalitions have launched an ongoing assault aimed at breaking the siege of Eastern Aleppo from the south, and in doing so, themselves laying siege to regime-held Western Aleppo.
Standing in their way was a roughly 5km stretch of regime-held territory featuring a large number of dug-in defenses, fortified former apartments and the Aleppo Artillery School. Should these formidable defenses be overcome, the rebels would be able to achieve a significant strategic victory and completely turn the tide of the battle for Syria’s largest city. However to achieve this would require one of the largest and most cohesive rebel offensives ever undertaken in the war.
On the afternoon of July 31, the offensive began. Leading the way were two massive armored VBIEDs which detonated and largely destroyed a regime-held former school. This was followed by a combined-arms offensive involving numerous tanks, APCs, technicals and infantry, which rapidly overcame several lines of dug in regime forces. These advances were filmed using small drone aircraft, which as well as being useful for propaganda, can also be used for real time aerial surveillance.
Following this initial breakthrough, Jaish al-Fatah and allied forces took a several kilometers of formerly regime-held land, including the majority of the Project 1070 district of residential towers. At this point less than 2km separated the rebel advance from breaking through into Eastern Aleppo. Yesterday this offensive continued and rebel forces consolidated their gains. However, over the last 24 hours, this offensive stalled somewhat, with intense fighting ongoing within Project 1070 and both sides claiming victory.
Concurrent to the main battle within Southern Aleppo, rebels groups in other parts of Aleppo launched their own assaults and shelled regime held-areas of the city, reportedly causing civilian casualties. At least some of these attacks were directed against regime positions in the south of the city, so as to force them to defend from both sides.
This battle, which is almost unprecedented in scale, is very much ‘do or die’ for the rebels. Given the huge amounts of manpower and materiel they have committed to the offensive, the aftermath of a defeat would be truly disastrous. Furthermore, the morale loss from a failed operation would all-but preclude any future offensives on this scale for a significant period of time.
In summary, the Battle for Aleppo, and indeed the Syrian Civil War is now in a critical stage. Should the rebels achieve the primary aims of their offensive, and break the siege of city, they will inflict a severe setback to the Assad Regime, and its Russian and Iranian allies. Should they fail, they themselves will be severely crippled. With this in mind, what happens over the next few days in southern Aleppo could decide the fate of the entire war.
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