Russia air strikes slow rebel assault in Aleppo

Sunday 31/07/2016
Largest rebel attack in Aleppo since 2012

BEIRUT - The Syrian regime's key ally Russia launched heavy air strikes overnight on the outskirts of divided Aleppo city, slowing a "last-chance" assault by rebels seeking to break a government siege.

The assault began on Sunday and is intended to ease the encirclement of the opposition-held east of Aleppo city, where an estimated 250,000 residents have been under a regime siege since July 17.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described it as the largest rebel attack in Aleppo since 2012, when fighting reached the city and left it roughly divided between the opposition control in the east and regime forces in the west.

But government troops backed by Russia's air force have put up a fierce defence, the monitor said.

"The Russian raids didn't stop all night on the front lines" there, said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

"This has slowed the offensive and allowed regime troops to retake five of the eight positions that rebels had taken since Sunday," he added.

The strikes came despite an appeal by US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday for Russia to "restrain" itself and its ally in Damascus from "offensive operations."

Kerry said regime attacks had prevented the warring parties from meeting for negotiations on Monday, the target date set for the regime and opposition forces to agree on the framework of a political transition.

The Aleppo offensive groups fighters from Fateh al-Sham Front, formerly Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, as well as the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and other factions.

The Observatory said 50 rebels and allied jihadists had been killed since the operation began on Sunday, as well as dozens of regime troops.

- 'Last chance for rebels' -

Its main target is the government-held district of Ramussa, on the southwest outskirts of Aleppo.

The route used by regime forces and civilians living in government-controlled parts of Aleppo runs through Ramussa. Its capture would both cut off government forces and open a new route into the city for rebels.

The Observatory said at least 30 civilians had also been killed since Sunday in opposition bombardment of government-held southwestern districts of Aleppo.

"This battle is the last chance for rebels. If they lose, it will be difficult for them to launch a new assault to break the siege," Abdel Rahman said.

"For the regime also, it's a question of life or death. They've been preparing for this battle for months and it'll be a tough blow for its troops if they lose," he added.

Elsewhere in Aleppo province, the Observatory said at least 11 people, including five children, were killed in air strikes believed to have been carried out by Russian warplanes on the rebel-held town of Atareb.

The town has been targeted multiple time in recent weeks. According to the Observatory, 76 people have been killed in strikes there since July 16.

Residents in east Aleppo have reported food shortages and rising prices since government troops seized the last remaining road into opposition-held districts on July 17.

- NGOs slam Aleppo 'corridors' -

Last week Russia announced the opening of "humanitarian corridors" to allow residents and surrendering fighters to flee the east for government-held territory.

The announcement was met with scepticism by both residents and some in the international community, and 35 NGOs in a statement on Tuesday called the initiative "deeply flawed."

The groups, including Save the Children and Oxfam, urged implementation of a UN call for a weekly 48-hour humanitarian pause in the city.

But Damascus and Moscow say some residents and fighters have begun using the passages and Syrian state media reported Tuesday that "dozens of families" had crossed from the east.

It reported similar crossings over the weekends, though residents and rebels in east Aleppo dismissed those reports as "lies."

Syria's conflict has killed more than 280,000 people and drawn in world powers on both sides since it erupted in March 2011.

Russia began an aerial campaign in support of Damascus last September.

On Monday, Moscow announced one of its military helicopters had been shot down over Idlib province, killing the five people on board.

It was the single deadliest incident for Russia since its intervention began and brought its losses in the war to 18.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the incident, which occurred in an area controlled by a rebel alliance dominated by the Fateh al-Sham Front.

On Tuesday, an area near where the helicopter went down was hit with a barrel bomb attack that caused 24 people to suffer breathing problems, the Observatory said.

Residents said the attack had used chlorine gas, but the monitor could not confirm.