Earlier this week, we noted that Iran had reportedly sent “thousands” of troops to Syria in preparation for an offensive aimed at retaking the city of Aleppo.
With a population of more than 2 million, Aleppo was Syria’s largest city prior to the war and it’s now run by a hodgepodge of rebels and militants including al-Qaeda, the Free Syrian Army, and ISIS.
The battle is also notable for the scale of Iran’s involvement. Between Hezbollah and Iranian forces, the battle for Aleppo is shaping up to be the largest ground operation orchestrated by Tehran to date.
Here’s more, via Reuters:
Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah and Iranian fighters launched an offensive south of Aleppo on Friday, expanding their counter-attack against rebels across western Syria with support from Russian air strikes.
Aleppo, a commercial and industrial hub near the border with Turkey, was Syria’s largest city before its four-year civil war, which grew out of protests against Assad’s rule.
Control of the city, still home to two million people, is divided between the government and rebels.
“This is the promised battle,” a senior government military source said of the offensive backed by hundreds of Hezbollah and Iranian forces which he said had made some gains on the ground.
It was the first time Iranian fighters had taken part on such a scale in the Syrian conflict, he said, although their numbers were modest compared to the army force. “The main core is the Syrian army,” the source said.
Hezbollah, which has supported Assad in several battles during the civil war, said the army was carrying out a “broad military operation” with support from Russian and Syrian jets. It made no mention of Hezbollah fighters in its brief statement.
And a bit more from AFP:
Russian air cover is backing offensives by Syria’s army and allied militias in the central provinces of Homs and Hama, as well as Aleppo in the north and Latakia along the coast.On Friday, the Syrian army pushed south from the provincial capital Aleppo city, where control is divided between regime and rebels forces, as Russian air strikes pounded the villages of Al-Hader and Khan Tuman and nearby localities.“The Syrian army started a new front on Friday and advanced to take control of the villages of Abteen and Kaddar” about 15 kilometres (12 miles) south of Aleppo city, said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.He said “dozens” of Russian aerial attacks in the past 24 hours had struck the area, which is controlled by a patchwork of groups including rebels, Islamist fighters and Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Al-Nusra Front.
Note also that Aleppo is near the so-called “anti-ISIS” zone that the US and Turkey humorously proposed to create a few months back, which means that Iran, supported by Russian air power, is now conducting an all-out ground assault very near territory Turkey likes to think it effectively patrols (if not controls).
But the real key here, is this (again from Reuters): “The assault means the army is now pressing insurgents on several fronts near Syria’s main cities in the west, control of which would secure President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power even if the east of the country is still held by Islamic State.”
In other words, if Iran and Russia manage to retake Aleppo (and you know they will because remember, thanks to Hezbollah, this isn’t a team that’s going to be confused by the vagaries of urban warfare), Assad’s rule is restored.
Just like that.
From there, the situation would morph and what you would have is a kind of Wild West scenario, only in Syria “West” would mean “East” and Assad, Russia, and Iran, having secured most of the critical cities and territory, would be free to simply mount up and push east on a kind of search and destroy mission.
So apparently, the US and its regional allies in Riyadh and Doha have a couple of weeks to figure out what to do here or else this is going to be over and suddenly, Washington will find itself in the awkward position of having to negotiate for a transition away from an Assad government that has been fully restored.
The army offensive south of the city, backed by Hezbollah and Iranian fighters, further expands its 10-day-old counter-attack in western Syria against insurgents battling to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
The army campaign has been coordinated with Russian jets, which began air strikes in support of Assad on Sept. 30, and Syria's own air force.
A U.S.-led coalition of Western and Arab forces has been flying combat missions over Syria for more than a year, while Israeli jets have also struck targets in Syria during the four-year-old civil war.
That has left Syria's airspace crowded with warplanes from rival, or even hostile powers, pursuing competing military strategies, heightening the risk of aerial confrontation.
Turkey's military said its jets shot down an unidentified drone in Turkish air space near Syria on Friday.
A U.S. official said Washington believed it was of Russian origin, but the Russian defense ministry said all of its planes in Syria had safely returned to base and that all its drones were operating "as planned". NATO said Turkey was investigating where the drone came from.
The Turkish military said the aircraft it shot down had continued on its course despite three warnings, in line with Turkey's rules of engagement. Broadcaster NTV said it had come 3 km (2 miles) into Turkish air space.
Turkey has already complained of Russian warplanes violating its air apace along the border with Syria earlier this month.
Hamas operatives in the West Bank are reportedly plotting a major terror attack against Israelis, Channel 10 quoted unnamed Palestinian security officials saying Friday.
The report of Hamas intrigues came as the violence continued to grip the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with a Palestinian terrorist stabbing an IDF soldier in Hebron on Friday and Arabic media reporting four Palestinians shot dead in clashes with Israeli security forces in the West Bank, according to Channel 2.
Three Palestinians were killed during riots and clashes with Israeli security forces in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip Friday.
Two Palestinians died and dozens were injured in Gaza in border clashes with army forces, Hamas health officials in the territory said. Meanwhile a third Palestinian was killed in the West Bank during a riot near Beit Furik, south of Nablus.
The military confirmed that hundreds of Palestinians had rioted at several flashpoints along the Gaza border, hurling rocks and burning tires. The army said troops had responded with various means to quell the violence. It acknowledged using live fire towards the lower bodies of what it called central instigators.
One of the dead Gazans was identified as 24-year-old Yahya Farhat, a member of an elite Hamas unit
The main confrontation reportedly occurred near Khan Younis in the north of the Strip. According to reports, some protesters had crossed the border fence into Israel, leading troops to fire at them. Tear gas canisters were also used against the crowds.
Other clashes were reported in the north and center of the Strip. Palestinian sources said 98 people were injured, some of them by live bullets.
Rioting was reported throughout the West Bank on Friday, including violent clashes in Ramallah, Jenin and Bethlehem.
A military patrol came under fire by gunmen near Ramallah, which caused damage to their vehicle. The soldiers were unharmed. Forces were searching the area for the shooters.