Syrian rebels fighting to lift a government siege of the eastern half of Aleppo are attempting to advance against troops and militias fighting for Bashar al-Assad, threatening to cut off the city’s western half.
Days into the campaign, launched by a broad coalition that includes thousands of opposition fighters, the rebels appear to be racing to cut off the government’s own supply lines, in an effort to impose their own siege.
Rebel fighters say the focus of the offensive is Ramouseh, a district in south-west Aleppo that contains a government artillery base, and whose conquest would sever the western half of the city from government territory in the countryside.
Humanitarian agencies believe control of Ramouseh could in effect place the western half of the city, which is under regime control, under siege. If successful, the rebels would likely use their advantage as a bargaining chip to secure humanitarian access to the eastern half of the city, which they control, rather than attempt to break the siege itself by military means.
Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, has been divided since 2012 between the eastern half, controlled by rebels fighting to overthrow Assad, and the west, controlled by forces belonging to or allied with the regime.
Assad’s troops imposed a siege on Aleppo last month when they seized high ground overlooking the Castello road, a key artery that was the only supply route from Turkey, which backs the opposition, into the eastern half of the city.
Residents in western Aleppo say prices of basic staples and goods have risen overnight as people try to stockpile goods in anticipation of a possible siege.
The episode highlights the politicisation of humanitarian access, once a key pillar of peace talks in Geneva under US, Russian and UN auspices. Deliveries of aid to besieged areas was a key element of the initial agreement, which has since collapsed. More than a million Syrians are living under siege inside the country. Most of those blockades have been imposed by the Assad regime, which has allowed only a trickle of aid to flow into those zones.
A quarter of a million civilians still live in eastern Aleppo, which has been largely destroyed in an aerial campaign by Assad and his Russian allies, who intervened last October to protect his regime. A siege of western Aleppo would cut off up to 1.5 million people from food and emergency supplies.
Aleppo has great symbolic significance, and the scale of the rebel offensive indicates how crucial the opposition sees it in the broader strategic landscape of the revolution turned civil war. Its loss could mean an irreversible defeat for the rebellion, depriving it of control of any key urban centres, most of which are held by the government.
Opposition forces elsewhere in Syria have attempted to aid the Aleppo offensive, opening new fronts in Homs and within Aleppo city, in an effort to distract government forces that have put up fierce resistance. The opposition campaign has been described as its largest ever by the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, which monitors the conflict.
Civilians on both sides have been killed as rebel forces launched artillery barrages on government-controlled districts of Aleppo while the regime launched counterattacks aided by heavy Russian air cover.