The opposition-held sector of Aleppo has been cut off from the outside world in recent days by an escalation of air and artillery strikes on the only road in, putting hundreds of thousands of people under effective siege, while Russian forces prepares for bigger operations.
Aleppo is the biggest battlefield of all in Syria. Hundreds of people have been killed there since peace talks broke off.
Assad vowed in a speech last week to recapture “every inch” of Syria. Aleppo, he said, would be a “graveyard” for the ambitions of his regional foe, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has backed rebel groups.
Russia said last week its air force would provide “the most active” support to prevent Aleppo and the surrounding area falling into the hands of what it called terrorists, a word Moscow and Damascus use to describe an array of Assad’s enemies.
Rebels have seen Russian statements that the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front has mounted attacks in Aleppo as a sign Moscow is looking for new pretexts to attack: while Nusra has been active south of Aleppo, the more moderate rebels say it has no presence in the city itself. The Nusra Front, like Islamic State, was excluded from the ceasefire and peace talks that were sponsored by Washington and Moscow.
The nationalist rebels fighting Assad in Aleppo are confident of their ability to repel ground attacks in which Shi’ite militias from Iran, Afghanistan, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah have played a major role supporting the Assad regime.
A number of these rebel groups receive foreign military support from states opposed to Assad, funneled via Turkey. The rebels say they saw off three attacks by pro-regime forces in less than a month on Handarat, also near the Castello road.
“The regime is trying to advance on the ground. It takes a point or two, then loses them,” said Abu Yassine, head of the Levant Front rebel group, speaking to Reuters.
“These circumstances are not new to the fighters. They have thrown all types of bombs at them and they can cope. The negative impact is on the civilians,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 300 people have been killed in air strikes and Assad regime bombardment of rebel-held Aleppo since April and around 250 people living in regime-held areas have been killed in the same period in intensified rebel shelling.
Opposition sources say the toll is much higher, with dozens of people currently being killed each day in eastern Aleppo, one of the bloodiest spells it has suffered in the conflict. Civil defense emergency workers operating in rebel-held areas say more than 450 people were killed there in the last month.
“It is a difficult and dangerous period we are going through. Aleppo is almost under siege,” Abu Yassine said.