Hizbollah warns of push on Aleppo
Clashes raged near Shia villages outside the city of Aleppo on Monday, as a Hizbollah commander promised “there will be a major push” in Syria’s second city.
“The war in Aleppo is coming,” a Hizbollah commander who gave his name as Jafar told the FT, adding to concerns that the regime is planning an offensive there.
Syrian government forces backed by the Lebanese Shia militant group Hizbollah have scored a string of successes in recent weeks, most notably in retaking the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border, and the regime of Bashar al-Assad appears keen to build on the momentum.
According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, clashes have been going on near the villages of Zahra and Nubbul in Aleppo province for several days while several thousand government troops have deployed in areas to the north of Aleppo city.
An article published in the pro-government al-Watan newspaper over the weekend said the army was “deploying heavily in the countryside near Aleppo in preparation for a battle that will be fought inside the city and on its outskirts”.
Hizbollah’s Al-Manar TV station said the operation had been dubbed “the Storm of the North”.
Rebel fighters controlling most of the ground between Aleppo and the Turkish border pushed into Aleppo last summer, but in spite of fierce fighting and aerial bombardments, the situation has been in stalemate ever since.
In the regime’s recent wave of offensives it has tackled manageable targets in and around its core strategic areas, and analysts have questioned whether it can achieve the same success in a large city to which the rebels have well-established supply routes.
Jafar, however, insisted the regime was in a position to take back Aleppo, citing the improved capabilities of the Syrian army, the fact that the Turkish government was distracted with internal unrest, and lack of unity in the rebel ranks. “Syria is not alone in this battle,” he added.
The regime appears to be using similar tactics of sectarian mobilisation and reliance on its foreign allies with which it gained control of most of the Qusair countryside before launching an assault on the town itself.
Though Jafar denied media reports of a large Hizbollah presence in Aleppo, he admitted the organisation had been training armed “popular committees’” in Zahra and Nubbul, saying that “takfiris” (a word frequently used by Hizbollah to describe Sunni extremists) had committed massacres there.
A recent UN report criticised the rebels for firing mortars and home-made rockets into the villages on two occasions earlier this year.
Hizbollah could also deploy its own fighters in Aleppo, Jafar said: “If the situation doesn’t go well for Syrian army, Hizbollah will enter the game.”
Not long out of a battle that raged near Lebanon’s borders until the middle of last week, he described the ferocity of the resistance the group’s fighters encountered from rebels in Qusair, and his suspicions that some had received training in tunnel-making from the Palestinian militant group, Hamas.
“What we learnt is that they are fierce fighters – sometimes they fight until death,” he said. Nonetheless, Hizbollah had “exactly the right tactics” to defeat them, he claimed.
When asked whether that meant the Lebanese group would have to enter the fight for Aleppo, he said that they were training the Syrian army. “Maybe they won’t need us,” he suggested.
Activists told Reuters on Monday that pro-government forces had killed as many as 100 people trying to flee Qusair in recent days.
Also on Monday, the Observatory said that a 15-year-old had been executed by an Islamist rebel group in Aleppo for the alleged crime of “blasphemy”. It was not possible to verify either Reuters’ or the Observatory’s accounts.