Syria and its allies aim to drive rebels from Aleppo before Donald Trump takes office as U.S. President, a senior official in the pro-Damascus military alliance said, as pro-government forces surged to their biggest victories in the city for years, Reuters reports
Rebels face one of their gravest moments of the war after pro-government forces routed fighters over the past few days from more than a third of the territory they controlled in the city. Thousands of civilians have fled for safety.
The pro-government official, who declined to be identified in order to speak freely, nevertheless indicated that the next phase of the campaign could be more difficult as the army and its allies seek to capture more densely populated areas.
Rebel fighters fought fiercely to stop government forces advancing deeper into the opposition-held enclave on Tuesday, confronting pro-Assad militias who sought to move into the area from the south-east, a rebel official said.
The attack on eastern Aleppo threatens to snuff out the most important urban centre of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, who has been firmly on the offensive for more than a year thanks to Russian and Iranian military support.
Capturing rebel-held eastern Aleppo would be the biggest victory to date for Assad in the conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people since it arose out of protests against his rule nearly six years ago.
As Russia and Iran have stuck steadfastly by Assad, the rebels say their foreign backers including the United States have left them to their fate in their besieged enclave of eastern Aleppo, Syria's biggest city before the civil war.
Government forces backed by Shi'ite militias from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq punched into the rebel-held area from the northeast last week. The senior, pro-Assad official said the rebel lines had collapsed more quickly than expected.
"The Russians want to complete the operation before Trump takes power," said the official, repeating a previous timetable which pro-Damascus sources had said was drawn up to mitigate the risks of any shift in U.S. policy towards the war in Syria.
The Russian Defence Ministry did not immediately respond when asked whether it had drawn up such a timeline.
Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, has indicated that he may abandon support for Syrian rebels who have received military aid from states including the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and could even cooperate with Russia against Islamic State in Syria.
The United States has offered aid including military support to some rebel groups under President Barack Obama, though the rebels have always said this backing has fallen well short of what they need against better-armed government forces.