BEIRUT – The Syrian army entered two pro-government Shiite towns outside of Aleppo and advanced against rebel forces in the northern province on Thursday, threatening to entirely encircle the opposition-held parts of the key city.
Government forces and their allies have now cut off the main supply route from Aleppo city to Turkey, a key backer of Syria’s opposition.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 40,000 people were already on the move in Aleppo province, and that many could seek refuge in neighboring Turkey owing to clashes between government forces and rebels.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has warned tens of thousands of refugees would try to enter his country, which already hosts the largest number of Syrians who fled their homeland.
Speaking in London, as world leaders launched a donors’ conference asking for billions of dollars in aid for Syria, Davutoglu had also warned that tens of thousands of Syrians are fleeing the fighting in Aleppo and would seek shelter in neighboring Turkey.
He blamed the mass movement on Russian airstrikes and the Syrian government’s forces and called for more U.S. leadership.
Syrian state-run television ran bulletins saying the government planned to “soon” seize total control over Aleppo, which was the country’s second-largest city and economic capital.
The state broadcaster earlier showed footage of Syrian soldiers and paramilitaries celebrating with the residents of Nubul and Zahraa, towns that had been under siege for more than three years.
“I thank the Syrian army, Iran, Hezbollah and all those who worked on liberating us from the siege the terrorists had imposed on us since 2012,” a resident told the broadcaster as he waved the Syrian flag.
Taking control of the territory on Wednesday marked a significant victory for government forces, who have been trying for more than two years to encircle Aleppo, the last major urban center in rebel hands.
Russian airstrikes backing the government are believed to have played a key role.
The Observatory, a monitoring organization, said that a group of government troops and fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard entered both towns.
The government also retook the town of Maer, located to the east, from rebels, the Britain-based watchdog said.
Reports indicated the rebels in Aleppo city still had a small access road to the west that was serving as a lifeline.
A source close to the Syrian government said the government appeared set to try to capitalize on Russian airstrikes and reassert control over the whole of Aleppo, which was Syria’s main economic hub before the civil war began in 2011.
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have made territorial gains in the war-torn country since ally Russia started an air campaign in September.
At least 21 people, including three children, were killed Thursday in airstrikes believed to have been mounted by Russian jets on rebel-held districts in Aleppo city, the Observatory said.
The regime’s massive attack on northern Aleppo started earlier this week as opposition leaders and Syrian government officials gathered in Geneva for indirect talks aimed at reaching a political solution to ending the civil war.
U.N. Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura put the peace talks on hold until Feb. 25 because of the military escalation inside Syria.
The foreign ministers of some 20 nations and organizations are due to meet to discuss the situation in Syria in Munich on Feb. 11.
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