SHAFAQNA – Islamist fighters launched an offensive to seize two Shiite towns north of Aleppo on the weekend in a bid to secure rebel supply lines into the embattled city.
On Sunday, fighters from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front as well as other opposition forces attacked Zahraa and Nubl, both of which have been besieged by insurgents since the summer of 2012, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The SOHR said that the Islamists advanced on the southern edge of Zahraa amid fierce battles that left at least eight rebels dead while one civilian in the town was killed by mortar fire.
Pro-regime National Defense Forces militiamen have led the defense of the two towns alongside Hezbollah troops and “Shiite fighters of other nationalities,” according to the SOHR.
“Opposition fighters have launched constant attacks against the two towns [over the past two years] but this is the first time they have managed to gain ground,” the report added.
Al-Nusra Front, meanwhile, touted advances in its campaign, writing on Twitter that it had launched an “invasion against the Rawafid [Shiites] of Zahraa.”
“Since yesterday evening [fighters] have been plunging into death in Nubl and Zahraa, [where they have] taken complete control of the factories area (the town’s southern entrance),” it said in a tweet accompanied by a series of photos of fighting in the area.
“The Mujahideen’s tank[s] are flattening the Rawafidin the Jamaiyyet al-Zahraa [area] that lies on the southern side of the town.”
However, Hezbollah’s pro-regime Al-Manar outlet claimed Monday that defenders of Zahraa had “thwarted a violent attack launched by the Al-Nusra Front on the southeastern edge of [the town], inflicting casualties and injuries.”
The outlet did not make any mention of Hezbollah fighters taking part in the battles, saying simply that National Defense Force militants were defending the two towns while the Syrian Air Force carried out “intense reconnaissance flights […], creating a ring of fire to prevent any advance by the armed groups.”
Fighting has raged on since the weekend, with the SOHR reporting a series of regime airstrikes outside the two towns on Monday.
Aleppo supply lines
The rebel offensive to seize the two towns, which lie along the highway linking Turkey to Aleppo, comes amid the ongoing regime campaign to tighten its grip around Syria’s northern metropolis.
“The opposition attacked [Nubl and Zahraa] because they sense the danger posed by pro-regime forces in the two towns, which could […] contribute to the siege of Aleppo,” local sources told Alaraby Aljadeed on Monday.
In recent weeks, regime troops have advanced on rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo, seizing portions of the Handarat Palestinian refugee camp in the north and disrupting insurgent supply lines into the city.
The SOHR said that the rebel operation against Nubl and Zahraa “aimed to reduce pressure on the Handarat front” southeast of the Shiite towns.
Al-Nusra Front, for its part, linked the fighting in the two towns to the Handarat battles, saying that while its troops “invade the Rawafid of Zahraa, they stand as firm as mountains on the fortifications of Handarat.”
Syrian rebels have besieged Nubl and Zahraa since July 2012, allowing limited shipments of food and aid into the towns in recent months.
A UN report in February said that “multiple armed opposition groups have been imposing tight ground sieges,” adding that “a lack of running water has reportedly forced some residents to dig wells without the necessary sanitary precautions.”
Vulnerable groups, including the elderly and children, are at particular risk of disease “as a result of the deteriorating sanitation conditions.”
In May, as part of the deal to allow rebel fighters to leave districts inside Homs, insurgents in northern Syria reportedly agreed to allow aid shipments into the Shiite towns.
The first UNHCR aid shipment into the towns arrived on May 9, bringing 20-trucks worth of relief supplies.
However, aid deliveries have remained irregular, and the recent fighting indicates that Islamist insurgents have changed their goals from imposing a siege to actually seizing the two towns.