More than 150 people have been killed after two days of fighting in the Aleppo countryside, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). SOHR says that “70 members of the regime forces, NDF and the Shiite fighters from Iran and Afghanistan” were killed, along with “66 Syrian fighters from rebel and Islamic battalions … during clashes after the attack including 46 killed in the northern countryside and 20 killed on fronts in Aleppo city.” The “Islamic battalions” moniker refers to fighters from the Islamic Front, a powerful coalition of Islamist and jihadist groups that is allied to the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.
The SOHR also said that 20 fighters from the Al Nusrah Front and the “al Muhajireen wal Ansar army” were killed. The latter group is Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (JMA), which considers itself the Syrian branch of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Caucasus Emirate. JMA, which is largely Chechen-led, is a staunch ally of the Al Nusrah Front.
The current fighting started when regime forces launched an offensive in various parts of northern Aleppo. According to SOHR, the offensive was intended to cut off supply routes to the rebels, as well as end the siege of Zahra and Nubl, two Shiite towns north of Aleppo city. Regime forces were able to retake two nearby villages, but according to the Daily Star Lebanon, the rebels have since regained control of the areas. The SOHR is reporting that fighting is still going on in the Bashkwi village, with the Syrian Army being reinforced by “Non-Syrian fighters, NDF [National Defense Force] and Hezbollah” fighters. As combat is still raging in the area, the death toll is likely to rise.
This offensive comes as regime forces, also backed by Hezbollah and non-Syrian fighters, launched another offensive in the southern Daraa province. While their veracity has not not been confirmed, several photos have emerged claiming to show Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Quds Force, with regime soldiers in Daraa. The Quds Force is the unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps tasked with external operations. Soleimani has been seen in various hot-spots in Iraq leading both Iraqi Security Forces personnel and Shia militias. Iran has deployed personnel to the fight in Syria, as well. In October, a Basij general was killed near Aleppo. The Basij is the volunteer-based paramilitary force that is subordinate to the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Additionally, a Revolutionary Guard Corps member was killed in an Israeli airstrike in Quneitra last month.
In both recent offensives by the Syrian Army, Afghan Hazaras have also been spotted fighting for the Assad regime. In May 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported that “Iran has been recruiting thousands of Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, offering $500 a month and Iranian residency to help the Assad regime beat back rebel forces,” citing Western and Afghan security officials. The report goes on to say that the Revolutionary Guard Corps actively recruits these refugees in Afghanistan and has command over them in Syria.
Several jihadist groups have published videos showing their participation in the recent fighting in Aleppo. The Imam Bukhari Jamaat, an Uzbek group allied to Al Nusrah and loyal to Mullah Omar of the Taliban, released a video showing its fighters among several dead regime soldiers. Another Uzbek group, Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, which is also allied to Al Nusrah, released a similar video. The Al Nusrah Front has also publicized its own footage, which includes appearances by Abu Ubaida al Madani, the emir of the Chechen unit within Nusrah. A Dutch fighter of Al Nusrah gives a speech in Arabic towards the end of the same video.
In addition, Jabhat al Shamiyya (Levant Front), a coalition of rebel groups in Aleppo, has released a video showing its fighters seizing a T-72 tank from regime forces. Ahrar al Sham, a powerful jihadist group within both the Islamic Front and Jabhat al Shamiyya (only within Aleppo city), as well as an al Qaeda ally, has also released a video showing its participation in the fighting. In the footage, Ahrar fighters are seeing using a tank and anti-air gun to target regime positions. Several pictures have also emerged from rebel groups in the area showing truck loads full of dead regime soldiers. In one photo, more than 20 bodies are packed into the bed of a pickup truck. Another image has emerged alleging to show an Ahrar al Sham commander with tens of regime captives who surrendered to the group. One Free Syrian Army group has released a photo showing the Iranian identification card of one dead fighter (this photo can be seen above.)
Photos from the fighting in Aleppo can be seen below:
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