Despite attention on Aleppo, Syria aflame on several fronts
By PHILIP ISSA, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — The battle for Aleppo has gripped the world, but it is hardly the only major front among the tangle of adversaries clashing across war-torn Syria.
Opposition forces are on the offensive in the country's center trying to sever the government's connection between Aleppo and the capital, Damascus, which is itself at the edge of a major theater of the war. In the northwest, Turkish-backed opposition forces are battling Islamic State militants, while to the east government forces are weathering an Islamic State siege of Deir El-Zour.
Here's a look at some of the battles around Syria:
In the central province of Hama, insurgent groups led by the extremist Jund al-Aqsa have been on the offensive since late August, capturing dozens of villages and towns in areas close to the northwestern rebel stronghold of Idlib.
The insurgents are now about 15 kilometers (nine miles) north of Syria's fourth-largest city, also called Hama.
The militants aim to eventually block the main road used by the government to send supplies to the northern province of Aleppo, where the fighting has intensified in recent weeks.
Among the major towns and villages captured by insurgents in Hama province are Halfaya, Maan and Soran. The government and its Russian allies have responded to the offensive with intense airstrikes.
DAMASCUS AND THE SOUTH
After retaking the once-opposition-held hub of Darya, on Damascus's southern outskirts, and forcing the evacuation of the 6,000 or so civilians and fighters trapped inside, the military and allied militias have turned their attention to the steadily shrinking zone of rebel control to the capital's northeast.
The rebels in Douma and al-Nashabiyeh are beset by factional infighting over control of the limited resources that leak through the government's blockade. The opposition holds two pockets in northeastern Damascus, in the Jobar and Barzeh neighborhoods, from which they carry out daily shelling attacks on the city's government-held areas. Pro-government forces are close to sealing off these pockets from the larger rebel-controlled swath of territory on the capital's outskirts.
Meanwhile, fighting rages between the ideologically-diverse rebel factions and pro-government forces in Daraa province, along the Jordanian border. A government crackdown against popular demonstrations in Daraa in 2011 sparked the ongoing civil war. And in neighboring Qunaitra province, Israeli jets are sporadically striking Syrian military positions near the occupied Golan Heights as stray shells fall on Israel.
Opposition fighters backed by Turkish ground and air forces continue to erode the Islamic State group's hold over northern Syria while also containing the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces that control most of the country's northern border. Turkey sees the Kurdish forces as an extension of its own outlawed Kurdish rebels.
The fighting has not come without a cost to Turkey, which has lost nine soldiers on Syrian soil since intervening in August.
The Turkish-Syrian opposition coalition is advancing in the direction of Dabiq, which occupies a central place in IS propaganda. The extremists, citing ancient prophecy, believe Dabiq will be the scene of an apocalyptic battle between Christianity and Islam. The group named its online magazine after the town, which it has occupied since August 2014.
Syrian government forces and Islamic State militants are locked in battle over control of Deir El-Zour province, which is also the setting of some of the fiercest international coalition air raids against the extremists.
The U.S.-led coalition is targeting bridges up and down the Euphrates River, leading the Syrian foreign ministry to accuse the air campaign of destroying the country's infrastructure.
The extremists have kept the provincial capital, also called Deir el-Zour, under siege since 2014, but pro-government forces have withstood the encirclement thanks to air-dropped humanitarian assistance from the U.N. and weapons and ammunition flown into the nearby airport, which remains under government control.
Rebel groups, President Bashar Assad's government and the government's international backers have committed thousands of fighters to the battle for Aleppo, Syria's largest city. The fierce fighting has prompted the U.N.'s special envoy to warn that thousands of civilians could be killed and the city "destroyed" if the Russian and Syrian air forces do not halt their bombardment of its rebel-held eastern neighborhoods.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has described conditions in eastern Aleppo, where 275,000 people are trapped under a government siege, as "worse than a slaughterhouse."
On Wednesday, Syria's military command announced it had scaled back its assault in order to allow civilians to evacuate, two weeks after it declared an all-out offensive for the east.
In an urgent plea on Thursday, U.N. Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura proposed evacuating the estimated 900 al-Qaida-linked fighters holed up in the east in exchange for an end to the Russian and government bombardment.
But rebel commanders said they could not trust the government to stop bombing, while Assad said there was no distinction between the al-Qaida-linked militants and the other estimated 7,000 opposition fighters in the city.
Associated Press Writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.Associated Press