With a healthy assist from the Russian air force, the Syrian military and its allies cut a key rebel supply line to Turkey on Wednesday, dealing a serious blow to the rebels in the country's north and getting closer to creating a chokehold that could turn the course of the war.
Regime forces and militias in two Shi'ite towns seized the midpoint of a strip of rebel territory running north of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and economic hub, to the Turkish border. Regime forces had launched a new offensive north of the city on Monday, according to pro-government and opposition sources. By Wednesday, they had come within a few kilometers of the two partially besieged towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa and their forces were able to converge on the rebels in the middle.
The vital rebel supply line from Aleppo City up to the Bab al-Salameh border crossing with Turkey has now been cut by the regime. Rebels and civilians told VICE News that intense bombing and shelling had taken a heavy toll on the local population; many fled north but were stranded at the still-closed border crossing, or had camped in surrounding farmlands.
"We need anti-aircraft weapons as soon as possible."
Rebels north of Aleppo had already been stretched thin, attempting to balance fronts against the regime, the Islamic State, and the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and their allies. The latest push by the regime of Bashar al-Assad – and, in particular, relentless Russian bombing from the air – proved too much to handle.
"The regime is relying primarily on the Russian air force. Its jets are in the air constantly," said Col. Ahmed Uthman, military commander of local rebel faction Firqat al-Sultan Murad.
Locals described the nonstop aerial bombing and the shelling of the area as "scorched earth" tactics.
"There's no parity between these Russian jets and rebel forces," said Firas Pasa, commander of Aleppo brigade Liwa al-Mu'tasem Billah. "We need anti-aircraft weapons as soon as possible."
In addition to Russian airpower, the regime's Syrian Arab Army is also backed by various paramilitary forces, including Iraqi Shi'ite units. "We're no longer facing Bashar's army, the army of Abu Flip-flops," said a media official with a rebel brigade in the north who requested anonymity, using a derisive nickname for the regime's exhausted military.
"I'm being straight with you, the young and the old will fight for their land and their honor."
On social media, members of Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra had accused other brigades of failing to help in the battle, a charge locals who spoke to VICE News over various messaging apps strongly denied. Nusra had previously made a show of the reinforcements it sent to the Aleppo front.
"That's the typical propaganda from Jabhat al Nusra," said Osama Abu Zeid, a legal advisor to rebels who said he had made the run from Aleppo city up to Turkey just hours before the regime closed the road. "Nusra always tries to one-up the Free Syrian Army's factions by saying, 'They weren't there, we were there.'"
"It's nonsense," said a Syrian journalist in Aleppo who requested anonymity. "The problem wasn't the lack of numbers, the [regime's] advance happened because of a lack of parity in terms of strength. Whoever controls the air controls the ground."
Jabhat al Nusra media representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Aleppo residents who spoke to VICE News said they now expected the regime to turn south and attempt to encircle and besiege the city. Rebels now hold roughly half of Aleppo, which is supplied by a single road that runs through hostile territory to the countryside.
"The regime is trying… to continue its advance towards the towns of Hreitan, Anadan and Hayyan," said the journalist. "If it manages to get to these villages and cut the last remaining supply line between Aleppo city and the western countryside, Aleppo city is totally besieged."
There are fears that Aleppo may become the new Homs, another major city where the regime managed to encircle and starve rebels until they were forced to surrender in exchange for safe passage to other rebel areas.
Pasa, speaking from Aleppo City, said that so far there are no signs of panic or stockpiling of supplies, although he did say that civilian casualties from the fighting meant local hospitals were low on blood. But people wouldn't give up without a fight, he said. "This is Aleppo, not Homs, brother," Pasa told VICE News. "Aleppo has something like an entire division of rebels in it…. I'm being straight with you, the young and the old will fight for their land and their honor."
Watch the VICE News documentary Inside the Battle: Al Nusra-Al Qaeda in Syria
More than one rebel interviewee also expressed fears that the regime would push further west to take the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in neighboring Idlib province, the rebels' other major outlet to Turkey. By cutting off the northern Aleppo countryside, the regime has already blocked northwest Syria's supplies of fuel, which had been shipped by truck from Islamic State territory.
The rebel media official described the regime's strategy as "grab the crossings and choke out the revolution," and feared this might be the beginning of the end.
"The heart of the revolution is in the north," he said. "As soon as Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh are taken, you can consider Idlib fallen."