A Syrian commercial flight landed at Aleppo airport on Wednesday from Damascus, marking the resumption of domestic flights between Syria's two largest cities for the first time since 2012 – even as nearby, the government's onslaught continued with airstrikes reportedly hitting several rebel-held towns and villages.
The flight carrying Syrian officials and journalists was a symbolic message from President Bashar Assad's government, days after its forces consolidated control over the northwestern province of Aleppo and seized the last segments of the strategic M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus. The motorway between Syria's two biggest cities was being repaired and was scheduled to reopen in coming days, for the first time in eight years.
Backed by heavy Russian air strikes, government forces have for weeks been pushing a crushing military campaign to recapture the Aleppo countryside and parts of neighboring Idlib province in northwestern Syria, the last rebel-held areas in the country.
The offensive has sent hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing towards the border with Turkey in one of the biggest single displacements of the nine-year war. Many of them are now staying in tents, in open fields and under trees innear the Turkish border. The U.N. has put the number of those displaced since December 1 at more than 900,000 civilians –– more than half of them women and children.
The military campaign has killed hundreds of civilians and disrupted aid distribution.
The Syrian Air flight landed at Aleppo airport after a 40-minute flight from Damascus on Wednesday and was welcomed by a military band on the tarmac. Syrian warplanes flew low overhead in a show of force and celebration. Earlier in the day, Syrian Tourism Minister Rami Radwan Martini and Transport Minister Ali Hammoud opened the airport for business.
Hammoud said the opening of the airport is a "great joy" for Syrians and a "dream" for the ministry.
The airport has been closed since 2012 due to fighting, after Aleppo fell into rebel hands. Backed by Russia and Iran, the Syrian army drove the rebels from Aleppo in December 2016, after a crushing years-long siege and bombardment campaign. The airport opened briefly in 2017 to much fanfare but was closed again due to security concerns.