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Syrian army imposes blockade in Aleppo

March 6, 2014

While the Syrian Army operations in the strategic important Qalamoun area seem to have encountered stiff resistance and the important city of Yabroud is still in the hand of Islamist fighters, the situation in Aleppo develops as planned. Alaa Halabi from As-Safir reports:

With the launch of military operations in Aleppo four months ago, there were talks of a big battle coinciding with the arrival of huge reinforcements for the Syrian army and units from the National Defense Force. However, the battle was overrated. The army had a different plan (as As-Safir indicated last November), which relied on patience, successive destruction of strategic positions in rebel held neighborhoods and a blockade on militants within Aleppo’s neighborhoods, after isolating the city from its suburbs. Moreover, the plan involved protecting the industrial city to revive Syria’s economic capital. This would create thousands of job opportunities, thus encouraging some militants to give up their weapons and return to their jobs.

The military operations started last November after the army tightened its grip on the city of al-Safira and the surroundings of Aleppo International Airport. The army advanced from these regions to the industrial city, which is currently witnessing violent battles. The battles broke out after a unit from the Republican Guard surrounded the city and took over Shaykh Najjar town and the strategic town of Talat al-Ghawali. A field source told As-Safir that the hotbeds of Jabhat al-Nusra militants, who are still fiercely fighting, were consequently surrounded.

attack Aleppo prison

Less than 1.5 kilometer north of the industrial city, Aleppo Central Prison has been under the siege of militants from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front for 11 months. There have been several prison break attempts, and the prison was targeted with bombs and suicide bombers. Yet, all attempts failed, and the frequency of clashes has now dropped. The Syrian army has approached the prison and taken over the strategic hill where several cannons were placed to target militants who try to move toward the prison. Lifting the siege on the prison has become just a matter of time, and it is getting closer, while the army’s takeover of the industrial city is approaching. During the militants’ attacks, 600 prisoners and guards perished due to the lack of medicine and food resulting from the blockade.

Meanwhile, in Aleppo, the army has recently intensified its raids on the city’s eastern neighborhoods that are under the grip of the militants, thus leading to the displacement of most citizens to the northern suburbs. A military source told As-Safir that the army units are moving toward these neighborhoods, specifically the Hanano neighborhood. The regime has gained control of the latter, while moving forward with its plan to operate the industrial city and provide roads leading to it. Moreover, the source clarified that after the regime takes over the industrial city and Hanano, a new road might be opened from Hanano to the industrial city, which might contribute to the complete isolation of northern Aleppo suburbs from the eastern neighborhoods of the city.

Syrian soldier 3

In parallel, army units would advance from al-Lermoun toward Beni Zeid, which means that the army would control this region. As a result, a military siege would be put to isolate the militants from the northern side that is open to Turkey. The military operations are meant to divide the city’s neighborhoods — which have become devoid of citizens — to impose a siege on the militants inside, and to implement the scenario of the Damascus countryside. This scenario consists of signing agreements and truces that spare the army the painful efforts of destructive military operations that have a high human and material cost.

Regarding the military steps inside Aleppo, the military source revealed that the plan consists of “controlling the highways and roundabouts in these neighborhoods without going into the quarters and buildings.”

The source added, “These axes stretch from Neirab to al-Haouz roundabout, toward al-Shaar and Sakhour, and from the airport highway to Sakhour roundabout reaching Hanano barracks to Maysaloun, and from al-Shaar to Qadi Askar, Bab al-Hadid and Job al-Qubba and the Palace of Justice then the Aleppo Citadel. From the other side, the axes stretch from al-Mahata to Huzaifa Mosque and Al-Hajj Bridge, and from Sayf al-Dawla and Nazlat Al-Mashhad reaching Al-Hajj Bridge. After controlling these axes, snipers will be assigned to stop any moves outside these neighborhoods, which have become almost devoid of civilians, waiting for the militants inside these regions to surrender.”

The source confirmed that the first step to implement this plan in the city effectively started with a military movement east of the city and consisted of entering “Hanano, al-Haydariya, al-Halwaniya and al-Shaar.”

On the other hand, the armed factions started to take action to stop this scenario, but it was too late. They launched attacks on several strategic villages south of Aleppo, in order to block the supply route that the army uses (Aleppo-Khanaser-Hama). The militants attempted to advance toward Assan, Ayn Assan, Rasm al-Shih and the strategic monitoring positions and control these locations. However, the militants of the Islamic Front launched several attacks that failed. Meanwhile, military reinforcements reached these villages to protect them and to ensure a route for the army supplies.

soldiers Aleppo 1

The remaining fronts in Aleppo did not witness any significant moves, except for the ongoing digging of tunnels under the old city. The Syrian army is working hard to find these tunnels and destroy them before launching any attack in the city. Like other cities, there are archaeological sites surrounding Aleppo Citadel, which is subject to bombings also. Such operations seem difficult at the moment. Still, according to an archaeologist, the citadel has already been harmed by close shelling that shook its foundations.

The northern front overlooking the town of Hritan witnessed a new movement, as militants attacked the Air Force Intelligence Directorate. This front had been calm for the past 10 months because the armed factions were busy fighting, and then, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) militants withdrew from the regions. As a result, new attacks erupted, but they failed. This is due to several factors, mainly because these regions were well reinforced, and the Syrian air force intervened to deter any attacks on this front.

Assad wounded soldier

In a related context, As-Safir found out that a Baath delegation, led by Minister of Justice Najm al-Ahmad, arrived in Aleppo for a visit, the goals and reasons of which remain unknown. However, after holding meetings information was leaked, indicating that the goal was merely party-related and fell within the framework of activating the role of the Baath party and working on restructuring it. These steps aim to pave the way for the next phase, which is expected to witness presidential elections — elections in which the Baath Party will face competition in the political arena for the first time in over four decades.

Update

Even a propaganda piece in the LA Times acknowledges the gains of the Syrian Arab Army and the blockade of Aleppo. The LA Times in its March 6 issue:

Government forces have gradually been retaking ground in and around Aleppo for months and now appear poised to cut off rebel-held parts of the city if rebels are not successful in stopping their advance.

“No one knows what to expect, anything can happen,” said Omar Nasir, a fighter with the Ansar Al-Haq group in Aleppo. “The regime is using all its strength here.”

The opposition is said to control more than half of Aleppo but is surrounded by the government to the east, south and west, leaving about 12 miles of border open to the north.

The Syrian government has been on a slow trajectory to retake Aleppo since October, when it seized Safira, a strategic town south of Aleppo, and surrounding villages.

The advance has come about as rebels in northern Syria have been distracted by increasing aggression from the Al Qaeda splinter group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Initially seen as an ally, ISIS has taken over opposition areas, attacked rebels and forced their extremist brand of Islam on residents. In early January, open hostilities broke out between the rebels and ISIS.

Rebels also blamed a dwindling of arms shipments leaving them less equipped than before to face the well-armed government troops and allied fighters from the militant group Hezbollah.

The threat of an Aleppo blockade comes as numerous besieged neighborhoods in the capital, Damascus, and the central city of Homs have struck truces or temporary ceasefires with the government in order to allow aid to enter and some residents to leave.

More than 250,000 people are estimated to be living under siege, according to the most recent report by a U.N. independent commission of inquiry on Syria. The government has used siege warfare as part of its military strategy across the country, the commission reported. The rebels have also used the tactic, though to a lesser extent.

In January, ahead of peace talks in Geneva, the Syrian government proposed a ceasefire in Aleppo and a prisoner exchange with the opposition. The plan was immediately rejected by the opposition, which accused the government of trying to seem the peacekeeper even as it pursued an intense bombing offensive against them.

Back then, the possibility of a siege in Aleppo seemed unlikely. But two weeks ago, government loyalist fighters took control of the Sheikh Najjar neighborhood and are now trying to take the Industrial City, a manufacturing district.

Clashes are ongoing around the clock, as rebels attempt to fight off the advance, said Riyad Hussein, an activist with the Aleppo Media Center.

On Tuesday reinforcements and weapons came to the rebels from the north of the province days after ISIS withdrew from several towns near the Turkish border freeing up some rebel resources.

About two-thirds of the civilians in opposition-held Aleppo have fled over the last two months as a result of daily barrel bomb attacks that have reportedly left more than 1,000 dead. Even with the exodus though, an estimated 1 million people remain, activists said.

If a siege appears imminent, those remaining will surely leave the city having witnessed the starvation of residents in Homs and Damascus neighborhoods under siege, Hussein said.

Aleppo has no food or medicine reserves, activists said. Bread and flour, a staple of the Syrian diet, are already in short supply.

“Aleppo is bigger than Homs, the food will not last,” Nasir said. “If the regime blockades Aleppo it will be a huge victory for it.”

Even with the reinforcements coming to the opposition, some residents are not waiting to see if the rebels can hold off pro-government fighters.

“The people believe this will happen 99 percent because on the ground there are no encouraging signs,” said Batoul, an Aleppo resident. “People are leaving before they are blockaded.”

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