A Blow to Ankara: Syrian Army Makes Advances in Aleppo Offensive

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Syrian rebels attack Syrian regime forces in the Melah region, on the north side of Aleppo, Syria on February 17, 2015. Anadolu Agency/Salih Mahmud Leyla

By: Hassan Illeik, Rida al-Bacha

Published Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Syrian army and its allied forces are continuing the battle to besiege neighborhoods under the control of the opposition in the city of Aleppo, and to break the siege around the towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa in the city’s northern countryside — a move significant for its timing. The operation is reminiscent of the army’s surrounding of Eastern Ghouta, on April 7, 2013, which sought to prevent attacks on the nearby capital, and besieged the fighters. Starting yesterday, the army has been trying to perform the same feat in Aleppo, the capital of northern Syria.

Aleppo — The battle’s significance stems from several factors. First, it coincides with United Nations envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura’s UN Security Council briefing, after the Syrian government agreed to his plan to halt the fighting in the city of Aleppo. The Syrian government seems to be saying that its agreement to go along with De Mistura’s plan will not bind its hands in Aleppo’s northern countryside, an area which Turkey openly wants to transform — with Western help — into a buffer zone.

Second, it coincides with a major battle the Syrian army is waging in the south (Daraa’s northwestern countryside and Quneitra’s countryside) to further protect Damascus and prevent opposition forces in the south from becoming a strategic threat to the capital. These simultaneous battles mean the army is capable of waging major battles on more than one front. Further, they deprive the opposition of the ability to create a balance on the battleground — a balance that would render the army’s achievements meaningless, be they military or in terms of morale.

Third, this operation — if successful — will cut off the last main road connecting Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods (subject to opposition control) to Turkish territories.

Fourth, encircling the neighborhoods under opposition control will eventually help bring them back under the authority of the Syrian state, which would constitute a military, political and moral blow to proponents of toppling the regime and establishing a buffer zone in the north. To shed light on this issue, it is enough to remember what Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s strongman and former head of the National Intelligence Organization (who resigned to take on a more important post in Ankara), told Arab officials who met him in 2013. At the time, the Syrian army was thwarting opposition attacks on Damascus and advancing in the Qusayr area. Fidan told those who met him (based on their statements to Al-Akhbar): “All this progress will not benefit the Assad regime. When Aleppo falls in the hands of the opposition, the central region in Syria will fall entirely within a few days.”

Fifth, breaking the siege around the towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa will constitute a major moral blow to the Syrian opposition whose multiple forces (including al-Nusra Front and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar [Army of Emigrants and Supporters]) have spared no effort to occupy them. To that end, they waged more than one vicious attack in the past few weeks, all of which have failed.

Sixth, the Syrian army has adopted a somewhat new policy. A day before the attack began, it leaked information about mobilizing its forces north of the city of Aleppo ahead of its push to completely surround the city. Nevertheless, the fighters were surprised by the attack that began yesterday at dawn, allowing Syrian troops to enter three villages (Bashkoy, Hardetneen, Ratyan) on the way to Nubl and al-Zahraa.

Fighting in these areas is not easy, according to sources on battlefield. The opposition is mobilizing its forces from various villages and towns in the Aleppo countryside and some from the Idlib countryside, as well, in an attempt to repel the army attack. However, some of its forces were preoccupied on another front at Aleppo’s northwestern entrance, which the army attacked on purpose.

How did the battle begin?

Shortly before dawn yesterday, the Syrian army and Local Defense Committees began infiltrating from the village of Saifat heading north towards Hardetneen, Raytan and Bashkoy, in an encirclement operation aimed at isolating the fighters and cutting off their supply routes. The infiltration process continued for more than three hours during which hundreds of army fighters were able to position themselves at several points inside these towns and set up barriers. The battle began at 6:00 am when the Syrian army opened fire at armed groups in Bashkoy, before the forces that set up barriers inside the three towns began their operation from inside to prevent fighters from retreating, and cut their supply routes off. This element of surprise flustered the fighters, who were expecting the army from Bashkoy only.

Less than an hour after the operation began, Local Defense Committees and the army managed to seize control of Hardetneen, but they were met with resistance in Bashkoy and Ratyan. Clashes continued in those two towns until noon when opposition fighters in Bashkoy began to lose ground. This led to the fall of most of Ratyan in less than half an hour after the army seized control of Bashkoy. As the army went into Ratyan, opposition groups declared a general state of mobilization in the northern countryside and asked civilians to carry arms to stop the Syrian army from advancing. They were afraid the army would reach Marasta al-Khan and Bianoon, which would allow it to open the road to Nubl and al-Zahraa, divide Aleppo’s northern countryside into two parts and cut off the supply routes from Turkey.

The state of mobilization enabled the armed groups to wage a counter-offensive, reopen the Raytan front, and make advances in the town which witnessed the worst clashes in this battle. A group of 30 soldiers, however, managed to infiltrate from Ratyan to Nubl and al-Zahraa. A source on the battlefield told Al-Akhbar: “We came so close to al-Zahraa, we were able to see our comrades inside the town with our own eyes. The only thing standing between us is a few pockets in which fighters are trying to mobilize their forces and fortify their positions.”

While the Syrian army was waging a battle in the northern countryside, it opened the front of the Shihan Roundabout — al-Maamel area on the western side of Aleppo — in order to move towards Sheikh Maqsood and lay siege to the fighters in the eastern neighborhoods.

Advancing on al-Maamel front was tough given the nature of the area and its buildings. The army simultaneously fought on the Mazare al-Mallah front with the support of al-Quds Brigade (which includes fighters from the southern and southeastern countryside). It was able to control a number of farms in the west near Haritan and get close to the Castello crossroads, Aleppo’s northwestern entrance, which is connected to the international road that links Aleppo to Turkey through Haritan, Bianoon, al-Zahraa and Azaz.

Opening several fronts deprived opposition fighters of the ability to focus on Jamiat al-Zahraa and al-Rashidin al-Rabia neighborhood west of Aleppo, which enabled Air Force intelligence forces stationed in the area to advance and control seven urban blocks in the vicinity of the Air Force Intelligence building and al-Rasoul al-Azam Mosque. The army was also able to advance in al-Rashidin al-Rabia while opposition fighters failed to ease the pressure on the city of Aleppo fronts by trying to infiltrate the Bustan al-Qasr, al-Qalaa and Old Aleppo fronts. The battles subsided with the approaching sunset, except for the Ratyan front where the fighting continued between the two sides until midnight. The battles subsided but did not end. Military leaders, meanwhile, stress that the decision to break the siege around Nubl and al-Zahraa is final and completely encircling the city of Aleppo is irreversible, and that it should be completed before de Mistura’s plan is implemented.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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