Fighting and around in the Syrian city of Aleppo shows no sign of letting up, as rebels report the arrival of new American-made weapons to counter a government-led offensive supported by Iran and Russia that began on Friday and has since forced tens of thousands to flee the city.
Members of the Free Syrian Army told Reuters that they had received a shipment of anti-tank missiles from the United States and other countries opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, who's government has been propped up by a recent influx of troops and equipment from Iran and Russia. Russia began an air campaign against rebel-held areas in Syria last month that is bolstered by Iran and Hezbollah ground forces fighting alongside Assad's army.
The government-led offensive on Aleppo has forced at least 70,000 Syrians to flee the city and the surrounding area since it began last week, according to Dr. Zaidoun al-Zoabi, head of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations. The operation aims to recover areas that have fallen to rebels. The Syrian government now controls less than a third of the country. The Islamic State insurgency had been fighting rival rebel groups north of Aleppo when the government launched its offensive.
Russian planes hit 49 Islamic State targets in Aleppo and other provinces over the past 24 hours, the news agency Interfax reported on Monday, citing the Russian Defense Ministry.
In addition to the Russian air campaign, Assad's forces are further aided by thousands of Iranian troops who have arrived in recent days to help retake Aleppo and Hama. Major General Qassem Suleimani, the chief of Iran's elite special-ops intelligence outfit the Quds Force, was photographed with fighters from an Iraqi Shiite militia in Aleppo yesterday, where he is reportedly overseeing the various militias aligned with Assad, Russia, and Iran. Pictures of Suleimani speaking to camouflage fighters in the western province of Latakia also circulated on social media accounts in recent days,accordingto the Long War Journal. Such images of the historically secretive commander have been common of late, as part of a media and PR offensive to promote Iran's role in Iraq and Syria and illustrate its influence.
The delivery of the US-made TOW missiles to rebels in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria is apparently an initial response to the new Russian-Iranian intervention. Foreign states supporting the rebels include Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar.
Turkey has given weapons to a number of anti-Assad rebel groups as part of a program supported by the US.
"We received more supplies of ammunition in greater quantities than before, including mortar bombs, rocket launchers and anti-tank (missiles)," said Issa al-Turkmani, a commander in the FSA-affiliated Sultan Murad group fighting in the Aleppo area. "We have received more new TOWs in the last few days…. We are well-stocked after these deliveries."
But some rebel fighters say that the military aid is not enough to push back Assad's assault.
"A few (TOW missiles) will not do the trick," one official with an armed group in Aleppo told Reuters. "They need dozens."
Watch the VICE News documentary The Ghosts of Aleppo:
Both US and Russian warplanes are targeting Islamic State militants in Syria, which puts the two former Cold War foes on the same side in one arena of the Syrian civil war. Russia has also been accused of targeting rebels backed by the US, however.
Aleppo has been split in half since about 2012, with the western half controlled by the government and the east dominated by rebel militias. The city has been a major flashpoint throughout the war, with fighters from the Syrian government, the Islamic State, opposition rebels, and now Russian airstrikes and Iranian troops all battling for dominance.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned on Sunday that the assault on Aleppo could bring a fresh wave of residents fleeing the city, compounding the refugee crisis in the surrounding region and Europe.
"Aleppo is Syria's second-biggest city. The [Russian] airstrikes in and around Aleppo as well as the ISIS attack on the city worry us," Davutoglu remarked after speaking with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about how to deal with the crisis. "They could cause another wave of refugees."
He added that it was Turkey's "first priority" to take steps to prevent the potential influx of refugees. Turkey has already taken in more than two million Syrian refugees.
Aleppo was once Syria's commercial and industrial hub but much of its population has fled since fighting began. More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and another 11 million have fled their homes during the four-year long war, many of whom have escaped to nearby Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon or are attempting to reach Europe.