TEL RIFAT, Syria – Syria launched a ground assault Wednesday on rebel-held areas of the besieged city of Aleppo, the center of battles between government forces and opposition fighters for more than two weeks.
It was not immediately clear if the offensive was “the mother of all battles” that Syria’s state-controlled media vowed last month would take place for control of Aleppo. In recent weeks, the regime’s blistering attacks on rebel positions seem to have slowly chipped away at the opposition’s grip on its strongholds in the country’s largest city.
The official SANA news agency said regime forces have fully regained control of the Salaheddine neighborhood, the main rebel area in Aleppo. It claimed the “fall” of hundreds of “armed terrorists,” the government’s catchall term for its opponents, without specifying what that meant.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said troops met resistance in the offensive.
About 25 miles north of Aleppo, Syrian fighter jets carried out airstrikes early Wednesday on the village of Tel Rifat, hitting a home and a high school and killing six people from the same family, residents said.
It was unclear why the area was targeted. Residents said government forces often shelled the village, but that this had been the first airstrike. They acknowledged that there were some rebels in the village, though an Associated Press reporter saw no armed men during a brief drive through the area.
The international community has widely condemned the Syrian regime’s use of fighter planes in the civil war. The attention has focused on the struggle for Aleppo, but Wednesday’s attack shows that the regime is using such methods elsewhere.
Chaos is mounting inside Syria as the country’s civil war deepens. President Bashar Assad’s regime has suffered a series of setbacks over the past month: Four senior security officials were assassinated in Damascus, there have been a string of high-level defections including the prime minister this week, and government forces have struggled to put down rebel challenges in Damascus and Aleppo.
But the regime has far more powerful weapons than the rebels and retains a firm grip on much of the country.
Aleppo, Syria’s commercial center, holds great symbolic and strategic importance. Some 25 miles from the Turkish border, it has been a pillar of regime support during the uprising. An opposition victory there would allow easier access for weapons and fighters from Turkey, where many rebels are based.
There has been a marked increase in the number of refugees fleeing to Turkey in the past two days as Aleppo-based activists reported fresh clashes.
Some 3,350 people crossed the border overnight and Wednesday to escape the escalating violence, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported Wednesday. Some 50,000 Syrians have now found refuge in Turkey. Even more refugees have crossed into Jordan and Lebanon.