The 1,000-year-old minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque fell Wednesday during heavy fighting across the country that saw forces loyal to President Bashar Assad make strategic gains against opposition fighters around the capital.
Regime forces seized the strategic town of Otaiba, east of Damascus, breaking a critical weapons supply route for the rebels, activists and fighters said.
Rebels have held several suburbs ringing the southern and eastern parts of Damascus for months, but they have been struggling to maintain their positions against a ground offensive backed by fierce army shelling and airstrikes in recent weeks.
“The disaster has struck, the army entered Otaiba. The regime has managed to turn off the weapons tap,” a fighter told Reuters via Skype.
“The price of a bullet will go from 50 Syrian pounds to 1,000 Syrian pounds ($10) now, but we must pay and retake it. It’s the main if not the only route.”
Rebels said they pulled out of Otaiba, a gateway to the eastern rural suburbs of Damascus known as Ghouta, in the early hours after more than 37 days of fighting in which they accused the government of using chemical weapons against them twice.
The government has denied using chemical arms and in turn accused rebels of firing them in Aleppo.
Rebels used Otaiba for eight months as their main supply route to Damascus for weapons brought in from the Jordanian border, where Saudi Arabia and other private donors are believed to be sending in arms.
Government forces pushed in with tanks and soldiers.
“Now all the villages will start falling one after another, the battle in Eastern Ghouta will be a war of attrition,” another fighter in the area said, speaking by Skype.
Rebels fighting in Otaiba said they sent a distress call to brigades in other parts of Ghouta but it went unanswered by other units with whom they compete for influence and weapons.
“To all mujahedeen [holy warriors]: If Otaiba falls, the whole of Eastern Ghouta will fall ... come and help,” part of the message sent to fighters said.
The army has been advancing on fronts across Syria in recent weeks, even in northern provinces where rebels seized large swathes of territory.
Most critically, it has made gains around Damascus and the Lebanese-Syrian border – critical to linking the capital to coastal provinces that are Assad’s stronghold.
Rebel fighters in Qusair, close to the Lebanese border where fighting has raged for over a week, told The Daily Star they were surrounded by regime troops backed by members of Hezbollah and expected the Syrian army to move in “any minute,” adding that hundreds of civilians had fled. But he said morale was high and opposition fighters there would fight on.
“We will fight to the end,” said the fighter, using the name Omar al-Homsi.
Islamist fighters meanwhile said they had fired two rockets that hit the town of Qurdaha, the birthplace and burial site of Assad’s father, Hafez, who ruled Syria for 30 years. Residents in Latakia province who spoke to Reuters by Skype said the rockets hit outside Qurdaha, in a rural area called Slunfeh. Elsewhere in Damascus, two mortar shells hit the government-held suburb of Jaramana, killing seven and wounding more than 25, activists and state media said. State news agency SANA blamed the attack on “terrorists,” the term it commonly uses to describe Assad’s opponents.
Some rebel units condemned the attack on Jaramana.
“Our brigade loudly condemns these criminal acts, which have nothing to do with Islam in any way,” the Saad bin Abada al-Khudraji Brigade said.
The mosque’s destruction prompted an outpouring of grief from Syrians bemoaning the loss of their cultural heritage as well as the human toll of the country’s grisly civil war.
Regime and rebel forces exchanged blame for the destruction of the mosque, in the heart of the Old City of Aleppo. Fighting has ravaged the Old City’s stone-vaulted alleyways for months and had already reduced much of the mosque to rubble.
State news agency SANA accused the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda-linked group, of bringing down the minaret. Opposition groups said army tank fire was to blame.
Activists circulated images of the mosques once towering minaret collapsed in a pile of rubble in the mosque’s tiled courtyard.
The mosque fell into rebel hands earlier this year after heavy fighting that damaged the historic compound. But the area around it remains contested. Syrian troops are positioned in the citadel overlooking the Old City just 200 meters away.
“I feel that they are erasing my history and my memories,” said one young Aleppo man, who asked that he not be identified.
Both rebels and regime forces have turned some of Syria’s significant historical sites into bases, including citadels and Turkish bath houses, posing a grave threat to the country’s heritage sites.
Last year, the medieval market in Aleppo, which is located near the Umayyad Mosque, was gutted by fire sparked by fighting last year.
The fighting has also exacted a huge human toll on the country, killing more than 70,000 people according to U.N. figures and forcing more than a million people to flee their homes and seek refuge abroad.
There was no immediate toll available for the number of people killed across Syria Wednesday, however a day earlier, more than 150 violent deaths were documented by the opposition aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory said the dead included 79 civilians. Syria’s daily death toll routinely surpasses 100 people.