Sieges crippling Syria’s two leading cities intensified on Friday, as opposition forces mounted their most concerted push to take control of Aleppo and loyalist troops conducted a huge security sweep through anti-regime strongholds in Damascus.
Fighting in Aleppo is reportedly heavier than at any point since rebel groups attacked the city on 19 July, with rebel leaders claiming they are nearing a “do-or-die” moment in their bid to claim the city.
Speaking to the Guardian, Bashir al-Haji, commander of Tawheed brigade in Aleppo, said: “The decisive battle for Aleppo started at 4pm local time [on Thursday]. We wanted to surprise the Syrian army, which had started to creep forward towards the southern neighbourhoods.”
For the first time, fighting is reported to have reached several Kurdish areas in Aleppo, where supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), who are considered aligned to the regime, are thought to be.
Several other fronts have also been opened in the ancient city, where fighting over much of the past eight weeks has become a grinding stalemate, with neither side able to move forward.
Parts of north Aleppo and restive areas along an unofficial demarcation line in the centre, which separates rebel forces in the east from regime troops in the west, also saw fighting on Friday.
A building in the Syrian town of Azaz, only kilometres from the Bab al-Salam border crossing into the Turkish town of Killis, was bombed by a jet shortly before noon. There was no immediate word on casualties. Fighter jets have wreaked destruction on a daily basis in and around Aleppo, forcing rebel groups to frequently move command centres and disrupting their supply lines.
Ahead of the latest assault on Aleppo, the rebel leadership had tried to overcome frequent criticisms that it lacks co-ordination or even relevance on the battlefield by moving key commanders from the Turkish border to frontline areas in Syria.
The move did not meet a warm welcome from battle-weary commanders and fighters, who had displayed open resentment to senior defectors who had stayed in Turkey, rather than joining the fray.
Throughout the past year, as the popular uprising against the Assad regime morphed into unrestrained insurrection, the Free Syria Army has functioned more as a brand than a cohesive fighting force.
Rebel units seek funding and weapons from different sources and do not answer to a high command. Operations are often carried out unilaterally and decisive large-scale pushes have been rare.
The lack of co-ordination has been most evident in Damascus, where rebel groups have been on the back foot confronted by a relentless regime counterattack for the past month. Regime troops swept though the suburb of Barzeh on Friday, raiding homes and arresting suspects.
There have been similar assaults in recent days in the Douma and Thiyabiya areas, where activists have reported scores of summary executions.
Damascus, home to the military establishment and key leaders of the regime, was rocked by a suicide bombing that hit an army headquarters on Wednesday. CCTV footage released by the regime showed a car blowing up while it was being driven past the building.
The attack was claimed both by the Free Syria Army and a jihadist group. Rebel leaders in the capital later acknowledged that the strike had been a “collaborative” effort.
Despite the regime offensive, many businesses remain shut in Damascus and commercial life has ground to a halt in many districts.
The United Nations has said that it expects close to 700,000 refugees to have fled Syria and registered with it by the end of the year.
The overall figure is likely to be at least tens of thousands higher with many of those who have so far escaped to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq not registering with international organisations.
Eastern Aleppo has largely emptied of residents. Turkish authorities say they are now dealing with up to 2,000 refugees every day.
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