Syrian Army Recaptures Aleppo Villages as Rebel Group Slams UN Envoy

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Syrian opposition Islamic Front members make preparations ahead of their attacks with howitzers, made up by propane cylinder and named 'hell', to Syrian army located in Melah region, on the north side of Aleppo, Syria on February 15, 2015. Anadolu/Ahmed Hasan Ubeyd

Published Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Syrian army backed by allied fighters has captured several villages north of Aleppo from insurgents and blocked a main supply route leading into the northern city amid heavy fighting, a group monitoring the war and media outlets said on Tuesday.

A UN mediator has been struggling to broker a ceasefire deal in Aleppo, once Syria's industrial powerhouse; however, an insurgent group accused on Monday the envoy of bias.

Syrian state television said five people had been killed and 18 others wounded in "terrorist" rocket attacks in Aleppo neighborhoods.

The Syrian government refers to all armed opposition as “terrorism.”

Aleppo is at the heart of clashes pitting the army and allied fighters against a range of insurgents which include al-Qaeda's Syria wing the al-Nusra Front, Islamist brigades, foreign fighters in other groups and Western-backed rebels.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian army had blocked a road leading north from the city towards the Turkish border and heavy clashes continued.

Pro-government newspaper Al-Watan reported on Monday that government forces aimed to encircle the city this week in an offensive against insurgent groups.

The Syrian army had long been expected to encircle Aleppo completely, aiming to drive insurgents from Syria's second city and block their main supply road. It advanced around the east of the city last year, but the frontlines had been relatively static in recent weeks.

In the surrounding countryside the situation is largely the reverse, with rebels controlling much of the area west of the city and the army much of the eastern countryside.

According to Lebanon-based news channel Al-Mayadeen, the army is now in control of the villages of Ratyan, Bashkoy, and Hardetneed in the province, adding that the strategic advance is essential for lifting the siege off the towns of al-Zahraa and Nubl.

Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman also brought up the aforementioned towns, saying that the army has “two goals in the area: to cut the road leading from Aleppo to the Turkish border, which is the key supply road for the rebels and to open the way to (besieged) Nubl and al-Zahraa."

Both towns have been under a long siege by anti-government militants. The army has used helicopters to drop supplies to the villagers, who have been trapped in the region.

Nusra Front had also launched an offensive in November aimed at seizing Nubl and Zahraa.

Since October, United Nations special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has been working on a plan to broker "local freezes," starting in the northern city of Aleppo, to alleviate fighting that has killed more than 210,000 people in four years, 2,700 of them in January alone according to the pro-opposition Observatory.

He has frequently said the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub before the war, would be a "good candidate" for such a "freeze."

However, diplomats say that recent Syrian army progress in the area has reduced the chances of a truce between the government and disparate insurgent groups. Moreover, rebel groups in the north have expressed misgivings about the plan, saying it could benefit the Syrian army and pro-government forces.

Insurgent group accuses UN envoy of bias

On Monday, a Syrian insurgent group on Monday slammed de Mistura as "biased" and said it would not meet with him.

The Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) statement followed comments on de Mistura in which the UN mediator called President Bashar al-Assad "part of the solution for the reduction of the violence" and said he would continue discussions with him, after talks in Damascus last week.

"The Council with all its factions has decided to reject meeting the UN mediator due to his dishonest position towards the revolution of the Syrian people," the RCC statement said.

In a phone interview with Reuters, de Mistura said that he had not been referring to a final solution to the conflict in his statement.

"That is something that only the Syrians, if you had asked me, would have to decide upon. The main point was he is part of the solution in reducing violence," de Mistura said.

De Mistura's spokeswoman told Reuters there was "concern" over the RCC's announcement.

"We are aware of the referred-to statement and continue to follow with interest and concern the reactions coming out from the different groups and entities," she said.

The Revolutionary Command Council was formed late last year with the aim of unifying rebel fighters who do not belong to hardline Islamist groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Nusra Front.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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