The internecine conflict among some within the chaotic plethora of
rebel groups will allow Assad to portray himself as the only secular
alternative in Syria to a radical Islamist regime when peace talks
begin in Switzerland on January 22.
His military advances will give the Syrian government delegation
greater leverage at the negotiating table.
An army statement said government forces had pushed out from their
base at Aleppo's international airport, southeast of the city, and
were moving towards an industrial complex used as a rebel base and
the al-Bab road, urgently needed by insurgents to supply the half of
Aleppo under their control.
It said that government forces, along with militia loyal to Assad,
were in "complete control" of the Naqareen, Zarzour, Taaneh and
Subeihieh areas along the eastern side of Aleppo, which was the
major Arab country's commercial hub and most populous city before
the conflict erupted in 2011.
Fighting between the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the
Levant and rival Islamists and more moderate rebels have killed
hundreds of people over two weeks and shaken ISIL, a militant
faction led by foreign jihadists.
But ISIL regrouped and retook much of its stronghold in the eastern
city of Raqqa on Sunday from remnants of the Nusra Front, another al
Qaeda affiliate although much more Syrian in makeup, and Islamist
units called the Islamic Front.
WAR WITHIN A WAR
ISIL took control of the town of al-Bab, east of Aleppo, from other
rebels on Monday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory
for Human Rights monitoring group.
The Observatory, which tracks Syria's war using sources from both
sides, said eight fighters from Ahrar al-Sham, a unit within the
Islamic Front, were killed by an ISIL car bomb in the western
province of Idlib just before midnight on Monday.
Syria sank into civil war after a peaceful street uprising against
four decades of Assad family rule began in March 2011. The revolt
spiraled into an armed insurgency after the army responded with
massive and deadly force to suppress the unrest.
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As the fighting spread, better-armed hardline Islamists took the
fore over more moderate Muslim and secular rebels, who are supported
by Gulf Arab and Western nations.
Syria's foreign ministry dismissed as "fantasy" statements by the
pro-opposition Friends of Syria group — including Western and Gulf
states — in Paris on Sunday that Assad was a war criminal and peace
talks should end his "despotic regime".
"The Syrian Arab Republic is not surprised by what happened in Paris
during the meeting of Syrian people's enemies and the statements,
which are closer to fantasy than reality," the ministry said in a
statement on Monday.
The World Food Programme delivered rations to a record 3.8 million
people in Syria in December, but civilians in eastern provinces and
besieged towns near the capital Damascus remain out of reach, a
spokeswoman said on Tuesday.
The U.N. agency voiced concern at reports of malnutrition in
besieged areas, especially of children caught up in the civil war,
and called for greater access.
The official Kuwaiti news agency said non-governmental organizations
had promised to donate a combined $400 million for humanitarian aid
for Syria ahead of an international donor conference that will start
in Kuwait on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Sylvia
Westall in Kuwait; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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