Syrian army prepares for Aleppo offensive
Damascus allies claimed Sunday that the Syrian army has launched a new offensive to win back largely rebel held Aleppo and the surrounding areas, but an activist group said they saw no developments on the ground.
After being boosted by its victory in the strategic border town of Qusair last week, Syrian state media said Sunday that the army had “inflicted heavy losses upon terrorist groups” near the Minnagh airbase outside of Aleppo.
Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s media channel, reported that the army’s “Northern Storm” operation had started Sunday morning, aimed at “regaining Aleppo and its countryside.” Iran’s Press TV and Russia Today echoed this report.
But according to AFP, the assault on Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial center, had not yet begun.
According to a Syrian security source, "It is likely the battle for Aleppo will start in the coming hours or days, and its aim is to reclaim the towns and villages (under rebel control) in the province.”
Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, said he had as yet received no reports of developments on the ground.
“Shelling in many areas around the city continues as normal, but I don’t see anything special. There is no change on the ground.”
The Observatory is based in Britain, but relies on a wide network of activists on the ground for its information.
Mohammad Aleppo, an independent activist now based in Turkey who works with a range of Syrians still in the country, said that rebels and the army were clashing at an important hillside area to the northwest of the city of Aleppo, Ma'arrat al-Artek, in the Al-Rashideen area.
“There have been heavy clashes there for the last three days,” he told The Daily Star. “It keeps changing hands, but if the army were able to secure it then they would be able to advance on the city itself,” he added.
Pro-regime daily Al-Watan said Sunday the army has "started to deploy at a large scale in Aleppo province, in preparation for a battle that will be fought in the city and its outskirts".
Rebels in July last year launched a massive assault on Aleppo, once Syria's commercial hub. The city has suffered daily regime bombardment and clashes pitting insurgents against troops.
Al-Watan also said "the Syrian army will take advantage of its experience in Qusair and Eastern Ghouta (near Damascus) to advance in the (central) province of Hama and Homs" nearby.
"The consequences of the battle for Qusair will... map out the contours of Syria's political future," the daily added.
On Sunday, British Foreign Minister William Hague said that recent army gains will make it harder to organize Geneva 2 peace talks, or to ensure that the conference will be a success.
In remarks to BBC television, Hague said that it was "worrying and depressing" that the so-called Geneva talks were not taking place this month, and repeated his warning that the world must do more to help the people of Syria.
"The regime has gained ground on the ground, again at the cost of huge loss of life and the indiscriminate use of violence against the civilian population," Hague said.
"That makes the Geneva conference harder to bring about and to make a success. It makes it less likely that the regime will make enough concessions in such negotiations, and it makes it harder to get the opposition to come to the negotiations.
"The way the position on the ground is changing in Syria at the moment isn't helping us bring about a political and diplomatic (solution)."
The U.S. and Russia brokered an agreement for peace talks to be held soon, between the regime and the opposition, but the latter has refrained from committing to attend, stipulating that Hezbollah must first withdraw from Syria, and that President Bashar Assad must agree to stand down.
Also in Aleppo on Sunday, Rahman said, an Islamic extremist rebel group shot dead a 15-year-old boy after he was heard cursing.
On the southern edge of the border with Iraq, rebels Sunday opened fire on two Iraqi border posts, killing one guard and wounding two others, officials said.
The Syrian side of the Al-Waleed border crossing remains under Assad’s control, but rebels have been trying to win control of it for the last few months.
Heavy fighting also occurred last week on the Syrian border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, with rebels temporarily winning control of the Quneitra border post.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that despite the violence in the Golan, "Israel is not getting involved in the civil war in Syria, as long as the fire is not directed at us."
Speaking to his Cabinet in broadcast remarks, Netanyahu added that "The crumbling of the U.N. force on the Golan drives home the fact that Israel cannot rely on international forces for its security," Netanyahu said.
Quneitra is the only crossing point between Syria and the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, which was seized by the Jewish state during the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognized by the international community.
After last week’s fighting, Austria – a major contributor to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in the area – said it would withdraw its troops from the Golan. Russia then said t could make up any gaps left by Austria.
Also Sunday, Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed this offer by phone.
"We discussed issues linked to Syria where the situation is becoming more complex by the day," Netanyahu said in remarks communicated by his office.
Putin on Friday offered to send Russian troops to bolster the depleted UNDOF.
But under the terms of the 1974 agreement which established the peacekeeping force, no troops from the permanent five members of the UN Security Council can participate.
The idea was also ruled out on Sunday by Israel's minister for international relations.
"The idea of Putin sending Russian troops to the Golan in place of the Austrian troops in the force is not feasible," Yuval Steinitz said at the start of the cabinet meeting, in remarks quoted by army radio.
By Olivia Alabaster, Lauren Williams