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Battle for Aleppo heats up

Rumors have spread of regime evacuations from Aleppo following the rebel's latest foray into the city.

Aleppo tunnel blast. (YouTube)
A video shows rebels preparing and then detonating the tunnel bomb underneath the Air Force Intelligence HQ. (YouTube)

BEIRUT – Rebels have breached one of the regime’s defensive lines in Aleppo setting the stage for intensified battles in Syria’s second largest city amid rumors of government evacuations.

 

Islamist battalions, including the Al-Nusra Front, on Tuesday stormed the area around the Air Force Intelligence HQ in western Aleppo following a massive tunnel bombing underneath the building the evening before.

 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 20 regime forces members were killed in the tunnel blast which rocked the northwestern outskirts of Aleppo and the ensuing clashes, adding that Islamist forces had advanced in the area amid the regime’s aerial bombardment.

 

On Wednesday, Alaraby Aljadeed reported that the rebel attack had “breached the regime’s last line of defense to the west of the city.”

 

“The battle of Aleppo has entered a decisive stage after the opposition in the city achieved what it has not been able to in the past three years despite repeated attempts.”

 

A Nusra commander told the London-based daily that his troops, in coordination with the Levant Front and Jaysh al-Muhajireen w al-Ansar as well as Fajr al-Khilafa Brigade “seized control over what remains of the Air Force Intelligence HQ, the school next to it, and the nearby orphanage and the Bashir Mosque.”

 

“The remaining regime forces in the area withdrew to the residential buildings in the adjacent Zahra area [south of the HQ],” the unnamed militant added.

 

He claimed that the tunnel blast and subsequent fighting had killed approximately 70 pro-regime troops, including members of the National Defense Forces and fighters in the Palestinian Quds Brigade, PLFP-GC and Fatah al-Intifada.

 

Rebels targeted the Air Force Intelligence HQ on March 4 with an audacious tunnel bombing, but their follow-up raid on the area was repelled by pro-regime forces stationed nearby.

 

Evacuation rumors

 

The success of the latest rebel attack sparked rumors and reports that regime officers were withdrawing from the city.

 

An eyewitness told Alaraby Aljadeed rumors had spread among inhabitants that regime forces were transferring cash and precious metals from the Central Bank’s Aleppo branch as well as other financial institutions in the city.

 

Meanwhile, the opposition All4Syria news outlet said that over 50 families—mostly of regime officers and NDF commanders—had arrived in Latakia on Tuesday following the regime’s reverses in northwestern Aleppo.

 

“Eleven high-ranking regime officers left southern Aleppo’s Hamdaniyeh neighborhood on Wednesday morning and headed for the coast,” All4Syria quoted another opposition outlet as saying.

 

Aleppo-based activists told All4Syria that the wave of departures has come after “the regime received news that rebel battalions were preparing a large military operation against [its] bases in the city.”

 

However, a number of rebel commanders downplayed the importance of rumors that Assad’s officers and militias have been fleeing from Aleppo, according to a report by the pro-opposition Eldorar News. Instead they warned that a new attack on the city by Assad’s forces could be about to happen.

 

The rebel commanders warned that “the rumors of withdrawal and the emptying of museums and banks [could be meant to] reduce the readiness of rebel factions [before a] surprise attack.”

 

The outlet's correspondent also reported that the rebel attack on the Air Force Intelligence building and the surrounding positions had stopped completely because the area had been heavily mined by the regime.

 

Battlefield balance

 

Despite the regime’s loss of ground around the Air Force Intelligence HQ in the northwest of the city, pro-government forces hold a large number of bases at key locations throughout Aleppo.

 

In an analysis of the situation in Aleppo, Alaraby Aljadeed wrote that regime forces which control approximately a third of the city are not in a state of collapse.

 

The London-based daily explained the pro-government troops hold a number of strategic points, including: the Assad Military Academy along the western entrance of the city near the Hamdaniyeh neighborhood, the Artillery and Armament Schools near Aleppo’s southwestern approach, positions in northern Aleppo’s Bustan al-Basha neighborhood, as well as the Political Intelligence branch in the center of the city.

 

The regime has also retained control of important positions outside Aleppo, such as Aleppo International Airport and Kouweiris Airbase east of the city as well as the Air Defense Headquarters, Aleppo Central Prison and the Sheikh Najjar Industrial City to the north.

 

Government forces can also count on strong airpower against rebel advances, and have conducted increasingly devastating barrel bombings in opposition-controlled quarters of Aleppo.

 

“Regime jets have launched daily barrel bombing and missile attack campaign on markets, crowded places and schools in areas controlled by the opposition in Aleppo, leading to great damage and dozens of civilian casualties,” Alaraby Aljadeed reported.

 

Amid the heavy bombing campaign, the Education Ministry of Aleppo’s rebel held areas on Monday decreed the closure of all schools in order to save the lives of students and teachers “because the regime is targeting these schools.”

 

The bombing continued unabated Wednesday, with the Observatory reporting that warplanes had targeted western Aleppo’s Bustan al-Qasr, Old Aleppo’s Bab al-Nasr, and southern Aleppo’s Al-Fardous and Al-Sukkari neighborhoods, causing the death and injury of civilians in al-Sukkari.

Rebels detonate a tunnel bomb underneath the Aleppo Air Force Intelligence HQ. (YouTube)

The battle of Aleppo has entered a decisive stage after the opposition in the city achieved what it has not been able to in the past three years despite repeated attempts.