Syrian government forces and rebel groups fought fierce battles Sunday in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib with each side seizing territory as UN envoys continued their efforts to build support for “freezing” fighting in the former northern metropolis of Aleppo.
Syrian army troops and their paramilitary allies pressed forward with their campaign to grab territory overlooking the rebels’ main supply line between Aleppo and the Turkish border, to enforce a blockade on the northern city.
They seized ground in the strategic Mallah area north of Aleppo and killed 34 rebels and jihadis in the fighting, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group based in Britain.
The army troops were backed by local paramilitaries from the National Defense force, along with fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Shiite militiamen from Iran and Afghanistan, and a Palestinian paramilitary group, the Observatory said.
A local, anti-regime activist group, the Aleppo Media Center, said the rebels managed to retake some of the positions by the end of the day. It said the regime troops fanned out from the nearby area of Handarat late Saturday in preparation for Sunday’s offensive.
The AMC and other pro-opposition sources said the rebels destroyed at least one tank during the clashes, which also resulted in an unspecified number of casualties and prisoners from the regime’s forces.
Two civilian “media activists” were killed covering the fighting, the AMC said.
The regime push came as Staffan de Mistura and his deputy, Ramzi Ezzeddine Ramzi, pursue their efforts to secure a “freeze” in the fighting in Aleppo.
Ramzi began a series of meetings Sunday in Damascus with government officials, his spokesperson said, in a process expected to last a few days.
He is expected to discuss the results of De Mistura’s meetings with political and military opposition in Turkey last week over the plan to halt fighting in Syria’s former commercial capital and gauge the regime’s interest in pursuing the idea.
De Mistura is scheduled to brief European politicians this week in Brussels over the plan, which has come under criticism in some opposition circles because the regime might use the halt in fighting to pursue military operations elsewhere. De Mistura, according to media reports, is seeking a United Nations resolution to buttress the freeze plan for Aleppo, which he said would include a number of “deterrents” in order to make it viable.
In next-door Idlib province Sunday as the Aleppo battles raged, the Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate, and the Ahrar al-Sham militia spearheaded a sudden, two-pronged offensive against the Wadi Deif and Hamidieh military bases, killing at least 15 government troops, the Observatory said.
The Observatory said the rebels overran three government checkpoints in the area and circulated photographs purporting to show the military IDs that were captured. The insurgents lost at least eight fighters in the clashes, the Observatory said.
A spokesman for the Ahrar al-Sham militia, one of the strongest in the north, said he estimated the Hamidieh post housed about 1,000 troops.
“We’ve decided to end the regime’s presence in this area,” the spokesman said, in a video statement issued by the Islamic Front alliance, to which Ahrar al-Sham formally belongs. “Our brothers from the Nusra Front expressed their desire to participate, and we accepted this.”
The Islamic Front posted a video on YouTube which claimed that the fighters had captured at least two regime tanks during the battle.
At least one Free Syrian Army militia, Division 13, is also taking part in the battle, and claimed it had destroyed a regime tank with a TOW missile.
A pro-opposition media outlet in the area called this weekend’s push the sixth, and largest, of rebel efforts to overrun the two military bases over the last two years.
State media alluded to the fighting at the two locations, which are located near the town of Maaret al-Numan, and said troops had killed a number of “terrorists.”
Southeast of Damascus, meanwhile, ISIS militants who have recently upped their presence in a remote, largely uninhabited area clashed with two rebel militias, the Observatory said.
The Islam Army, which holds territory in the Ghouta suburbs of the capital, had been mobilizing for an attack on the ISIS fighters who recently streamed to the area, called Bir Qasab. The Islam Army and another militia, the “Eastern Lions,” clashed with ISIS militants at the edge of rural Damascus province, the Observatory said.
The Eastern Lions were formed late this summer by rebels ejected from Deir al-Zor and Raqqa provinces by ISIS. The Islam Army’s leader, Zahran Alloush, issued a public thanks to the Eastern Lions for sending reinforcements for the battle, which the Observatory said killed at least 13 fighters from both sides
By Marlin Dick
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