BEIRUT: Syrian and Russian warplanes have launched a wave of air strikes in northern Syria, killing dozens in areas held by a rebel alliance battling to take control of second city Aleppo. The air strikes, which began Saturday and were continuing yesterday, killed 45 civilians in and around Aleppo and 22 more in neighboring Idlib province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The raids came as the Faylaq al-Sham Islamist faction, which is part of the rebel alliance, said it had launched a new offensive to take the Zahra regime-held district on Aleppo’s western outskirts. The Islamist group said a “military operation… to liberate Zahra has started”.
The Britain-based Observatory and opposition fighters said a car bomb went off in the district yesterday, but did not mention casualties. The monitoring group said the air strikes were targeting areas held by the Army of Conquest, an alliance of rebel, Islamist and jihadist forces that has mounted a major offensive to seize Aleppo. “The intensification of the strikes in Idlib is due to the fact that this province is the main source of fighters for the Army of Conquest,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
An AFP correspondent in rebel-held eastern Aleppo said the strikes were especially intense around the southern district of Ramussa, seized by rebels earlier this month in a major setback for forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Nine other civilians were killed in rebel shelling of regime-held western Aleppo Saturday, the Observatory said. Aleppo, Syria’s former economic hub and a focal point of its five-year civil war, has been divided between a rebel-held east and regime-controlled west since mid-2012.
Fighting for the city has intensified this summer, after regime troops seized control of the last supply route into rebel-held areas in mid-July. After a nearly three-week siege, rebel forces took Ramussa on August 6, linking up with opposition-held neighborhoods. Emboldened by the win, the Army of Conquest announced an ambitious bid to capture all of Aleppo, which if successful would be the biggest opposition victory yet in Syria’s conflict. The increased fighting has raised concerns for the estimated 1.5 million civilians still in Aleppo, including some 250,000 in rebel-held areas.
The United Nations has called for regular 48-hour pauses in the fighting to allow aid into the city, which has suffered from severe shortages of food, water and medical supplies. Russia launched air strikes last September in support of Assad, helping the regime to consolidate its hold on loyal areas and regain some territory. The defense ministry in Moscow said yesterday six long-range bombers from Russia had struck around Deir Ezzor, a stronghold of the Islamic State group in Syria. IS controls large parts of Deir Ezzor city and most of the oil-rich eastern province of the same name-part of the swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq that the group seized in mid-2014.
The ministry said the Russian Tupolev bombers carried out raids to the southwest, east and northeast of the city, wiping out two command posts, six arms depots, IS vehicles and “a large number of fighters”. IS emerged amid the chaos of Syria’s conflict, a complex and multi-front war that has killed more than 290,000 and displaced millions since beginning with anti-regime protests in March 2011.
A US-led coalition is also battling IS in Syria and Iraq, with air strikes and backing for the Syrian Democratic Forces, an Arab-Kurdish militia alliance, which Friday took full control of the strategic city of Manbij after an IS retreat. The jihadists took some 2,000 civilians as they fled to serve as human shields. Hundreds were released on Saturday but the SDF said the fate of many remained unclear. Kurdish television showed footage of jubilant civilians in Manbij, including smiling mothers who had shed their veils and men who had lived for weeks under a shaving ban cutting their beards.
In rare good news, a 10-year-old girl who was shot in the besieged town of Madaya was evacuated to a Damascus hospital where she was in a stable condition, the Observatory and a security source said. Ghina Quwayder’s leg was shattered when she was shot by a government sniper at a checkpoint in the southwestern town earlier this month while buying medicine for her mother, Amnesty International said. The rights group had launched a campaign urging help for the girl. The Syrian Red Crescent was able to bring Ghina and her mother Sahar to Damascus after midnight yesterday. – AFP