Two rebel groups said on Saturday they had broken the siege of Aleppo after days of fierce fighting in the southwest of the city. If that is confirmed, it would be the first victory for the group that replaced the Syrian branch of al Qaeda, which is playing a relevant part in the fighting. It would also be a setback for Russia, which supports the Syrian regime and has been involved militarily in the country since last fall.
The siege of Aleppo by government forces and the attempt by rebels to break through are important because the city is, or at least was before the war, Syria's largest — and because a success by the rebels would connect territory they hold east of Aleppo with insurgent territory in the west of Syria.
"Fighters from outside the city met their brother fighters from inside the city and work is under way to establish control over remaining positions to break the siege," said a statement by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the rebel group that came from the rebranding of al-Qaeda's Syrian offshoot, Jabhat al-Nusra. The new group's name is Arabic for "Front for the conquest of the Levant."
A commander from another, more moderate rebel group also told Reuters the siege had been broken, but said it was early days and matters were "not easy". Pro-government online media denied the claim, however
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said the siege had not been broken but that fighting was very intense in the Ramousah area of southwest Aleppo, where rebels have been battling for control of a major military artillery base.
A drone video published by Jaish al Fateh, a so-called "operations room" that coordinates rebel activities in the area, published a drone video purportedly showing the Ramousah area under attack.
(YouTube video via Storyful)
Taking control of the Ramousah complex, which contains a number of military colleges, would isolate government-held western Aleppo by cutting the southern route out towards the capital Damascus.
It would also give rebels access to armaments stored in the base, which has been used by the Syrian army in the country's five-year conflict as a fortified place from which to shell opposition targets.
On Friday, rebels said they stormed the complex's main base, the Artillery College, but the Syrian army said it had repelled the attack.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels did take control of part of the Artillery College, plus the Weaponry College. They are now fighting for full control of the Artillery College and for control over the Air Force Technical College.
State television said the Syrian army had closed the Ramousah road to protect civilians from a rebel advance, and a large number of army reinforcements had arrived.
Some rebel groups are referring to the Aleppo battle as the "Ibrahim al-Youssef Offensive", a reference to an army officer, a fellow Sunni Muslim, said to have led a massacre of cadets at the Artillery College in the late 1970s. The cadets were predominantly from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. President Bashar al-Assad and his late father and predecessor Hafez are Alawites.
60 miles (100 km) to the northeast of Aleppo, militias backed by the US trying to oust Islamic State militants from the city of Manbij took "almost complete control" of the town on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia and Arab fighters, launched its campaign two months ago with the backing of US special forces to drive Islamic State from a last stretch of the Syrian-Turkish frontier.
The official spokesman of the SDF-allied Manbij military council, Sharfan Darwish, told Reuters that battles were continuing but that around 90 percent of the city had now been cleared of the ultra hardline Sunni militants .
Pockets of militants are still present in the centre of the city, the Britain-based Observatory said.
A spokesman for the US-led coalition against Islamic State told Reuters there had been "continued progress" in Manbij, and the coalition would continue to support the SDF for as long as the operation took.