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August 23, 2017

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Assad seeks to deal decisive blow to rebels ahead of US uncertainty

BEIRUT -- President Bashar al-Assad is determined to retake Syria's second city Aleppo to deal a decisive blow to the rebels ahead of a possible change in U.S. foreign policy, analysts say.

Assad's regime has in recent months been pressing a series of offensives to seize control of the devastated city's east, which has been in rebel hands since 2012.

The latest assault made a major breakthrough on Saturday when government forces seized the largest of the city's opposition-controlled neighborhoods.

For Assad's regime, taking Aleppo would be "one of its greatest victories," Middle East expert Mathieu Guidere says, stressing the city's "extraordinary historical, political and geopolitical prestige."

"It was one of the first cities to be taken by the armed opposition," he adds.

Syria's former economic capital and industrial hub lies at a strategic commercial crossroads near the border with Turkey.

The city has been roughly divided since 2012 into a rebel-held east and a government-controlled west.

Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the regime retaking east "Aleppo would be a turning point" as it would then control "the five largest cities in Syria."

Assad's forces already control the capital Damascus, the central cities of Homs and Hama and the coastal city of Latakia.

Bringing Aleppo under their control would also give regime forces a better chance at taking back the northwestern province of Idlib, which is almost entirely held by rebels and jihadists.

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