A leading pro-government newspaper in Syria said on Thursday that the army is preparing a major offensive to recapture the whole of second city Aleppo and its surrounding province.
The editorial in Al-Watan came as fighting intensifies in and around the divided city despite a February ceasefire brokered by Russia and the United States.
“Now is the time to launch the battle for the complete liberation of Aleppo,” the paper said.
“It`s no secret that the Syrian army has prepared this decisive battle with its allies. It will not take long to begin, nor to finish.”
A source close to the regime also said the army would launch a major offensive in the coming days.
“The army is preparing a huge operation in the coming days to push the rebels away from the city by encircling it and creating a security zone,” the source told.
The comments echo remarks made by Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi during a visit to Damascus by Russian lawmakers earlier this month.
“With our Russian partners, we are preparing an operation to free Aleppo and block all illegal armed groups that have not joined or have broken the ceasefire deal,” Russia`s Interfax news agency quoted him as saying on April 10.
Rebels have controlled eastern districts of Aleppo since 2012, confining the government to the west.
Control of the surrounding province is divided between a myriad of armed groups — jihadists of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, Kurdish militia and various rebel factions as well as the army.
Al-Watan said Damascus had given the fragile February 27 truce a chance at the request of its “Russian friends,” but should now deal a “severe blow” to opponents.
“Recapturing Aleppo city and then the entire province will be a severe blow to anyone who thinks about dividing up Syria”, the paper wrote.
“The battle for Aleppo and its results will… mark a huge paradigm shift in defeating terrorism and cleansing Syria of it.”
The drive for an offensive by the army comes despite an appeal by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura late on Wednesday for urgent steps to rescue the truce from its cosponsors Moscow and Washington.
Washington has accused Moscow of encouraging its Damascus ally to embark on an offensive to retake Aleppo, Syria`s pre-war commercial hub.
Moscow has countered that the rebels in the city are fighting alongside Al-Qaeda, which is not covered by the ceasefire, and has asked the UN to add two key Islamist rebel groups to the exclusion blacklist.