Rebels prepare for fierce battle as Assad sends in more soldiers
SYRIAN troops poured into Aleppo yesterday in an attempt to prevent the country's commercial capital becoming a base for a rebel offensive against Damascus.
Both sides are waging a bitter struggle for control of the city of 2.5 million people.
"It will be a long battle," said General Manaf al-Filistini, a defector from the regular army who predicted a guerrilla war would rage for months.
"Aleppo is very strategic for the regime and they will not give it up," he said. "We have to fight rolling battles with shifting targets. They will send additional forces again and again."
With rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting in several areas of the city, the regime diverted an armoured column from the Turkish border to seize back the initiative.
Helicopter gunships continued to strafe the city, but there was no repeat of the attack by jet fighters that the FSA claimed happened on Tuesday.
The rebel strategy centres on taking narrow streets and high-profile installations such as the airport and radio towers, said Gen Filistini.
The rebels would exploit the "alleyways of the old city where the regime cannot use its tanks, and industrial areas where we can find many places of shelter", he added.
One rebel in Aleppo said he had counted 25 dead bodies in an hour in the city centre as the army's Russian-made helicopters gunships fired at will.
Another activist, Farouk Al-Ahmad, claimed FSA fighters had destroyed four tanks in the vanguard of the armoured column.
Control of Aleppo is seen as the key to the outcome of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Although formally Syria's second city, it has overshadowed Damascus for much of the country's recent history.
Mr Assad's father, Hafez, developed strong ties with the Aleppo merchant class during his 30-year presidency.
Even if the regime manages to reimpose its authority on the city, Aleppo is much more fractured than before.
To the north, where Islamist tendencies run strong, the key towns of Azaz, Hreitan and Anadan are opposition strongholds. Inside Aleppo, factory owners are realising support for the regime is no longer in their interests.
Their employees have turned against Mr Assad, trade has been paralysed and the uprising has caused a deep economic crisis. The rebels, many of whom wear old combat uniforms with plastic sandals, scoff at reports of their supposed supply of weapons from abroad.
"We have no weapons shipments from Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey. We have to buy our bullets at 10 times the old price," said Gen Filistini.
Despite an official announcement that the regime's stockpiles of chemical weapons would never be used against Syrian citizens, there are widespread fears.
Ahmed Kassem, an FSA spokesman, said: "We know the purpose is to bomb the rebels with chemical weapons because these are deployed by aeroplanes and that's why they moved the weapons close to airports."
Syria's charge d'affaires in Cyprus, Lamia Hariri, is the latest regime figure to defect to the rebels. Some reports say her husband, the ambassador to the UAE, has also changed sides. (© Daily Telegraph, London)