Syrian insurgents say they have begun a campaign to capture full control of the divided city of Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city before it become a main battleground in its four-year-old civil war. The next big battle will be for Aleppo’s soul.

Neither side has been able to control Syria’s main commercial hub, 50 km from Turkey, since battle erupted there in 2012, turning its UNESCO-listed historic center into a ruin.

The prospect of a rebel offensive in the city is a stark sign of the turn of momentum against Assad’s government, which has lost swathes of territory to fighters in recent months in the northwest, east and south of the country.

Just four months ago it was the army and its allied militia that were launching a major bid to besiege rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo. Now, rebels are claiming the initiative.

“The next big battle of Aleppo you can say has started in its preparatory phases,” said Yasser Abdul Rahim, a rebel commander who directs a joint operations room set up in April to capture government-held Aleppo.

“There is a decisive final blow coming that will expel the regime from Aleppo and to liberate the city completely,” said Abdul Rahim, a member of the Nour al Din al Zinki rebel group that has been a recipient of foreign support. He was speaking to an opposition-affiliated TV station, Halab Today.

The next big battle for Aleppo’s soul and heart.

The city’s fall would be a major blow for Assad, restricting his control mainly to a belt of territory stretching north from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast. This would deepen Syria’s de facto partition between the Assad-run west and other areas held by a patchwork of armed groups.

Activists on the ground told Reuters the rebels have already captured some ground in government-held districts in the city and to the north of it as the next big battle for Aleppo gears up.

“They are now trying to mobilize around Aleppo, but until now they haven’t made big progress,” said the activists.

An alliance of rebels including recipients of Western aid fighting under the name Free Syrian Army made a small but notable advance into a government-held part of Aleppo this week.

The army says it beat back the foray into the Rashidin district – the first rebel advance into the heart of Aleppo’s government-controlled residential area in more than two years.

Insurgents have also been bombarding government-held areas previously unaccustomed to the level of destruction inflicted on insurgent-held parts of the city. It is the beginning of the next big battle for Aleppo’s soul.

More than 30 people were killed in an insurgent bombardment this week, the single most lethal rebel attack of its type there since the war began, according to the Observatory.

Government officials say they are still confident. A government military source said the insurgents had in recent months received artillery capable of destroying buildings. The next big battle of Aleppo will be destructive.

But as government forces and the militia fighting alongside them lose ground elsewhere, diplomats see the fall of Aleppo as a real possibility. One said it would “not be a big surprise”.

Since late March, the government has lost control of nearly all Idlib province to an alliance of insurgents including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. In the south, an alliance of rebels has advanced under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. Islamic State has also scored gains at Assad’s expense, capturing the central Syrian city of Palmyra.

The leader of one rebel group in the north said large injections of foreign military support in the last two months signaled an “international decision” to increase pressure on Assad. The foreign aid had benefited insurgent groups including the hardline Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, said the commander, who spoke on condition he not be identified because of the political sensitivity of acknowledging covert international aid.

“The regime is exhausted. It cannot finish its battles, either with the opposition or with Daesh,” the commander said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Reuters contributed to this article.

The Next Big Battle for Aleppo’s Soul

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