Rebel gains uncertain as Assad regroups for battle
THE countryside around Aleppo is a fragile haven for Syria's rebels. Makeshift battalions of local fighters have filled the vacuum left by the withdrawal of most of the regime's forces, but their gains are uncertain.
The insurgents are ill-equipped to defend the area from the possible return of an army with vastly superior firepower. Al-Bab, a market town 20 miles east of Aleppo, is one of the first to fly the colours of what rebels call 'Free Syria'.
Their green and black flag has been painted onto former police stations and government offices.
But on the outskirts of the town, an army garrison steadfastly refuses to capitulate. "We have them surrounded and we are trying to talk them into surrender," said Suleiman Nadoom, a rebel fighter.
"We think they are still in touch with the army and are being promised reinforcements. The other night they shelled us. There were 40 martyrs."
Because of this danger, people are still leaving the 'free' town. Mohsen Ahkram and his brother, Firas, fled with their families to an uncle's home 10 miles further east.
"They are targeting the apartment buildings and the houses," he said. "I had to take the little ones away from all that. No one knows who will be next."
The rebels who captured al-Bab are short of supplies. Individual fighters are forced to share assault rifles and often possess only a few dozen rounds of ammunition.
They face a dilemma over whether to join the battle for Aleppo or stay to defend the town from a possible counter-attack. President Bashar al-Assad's forces have launched a major operation to prevent Aleppo, the country's commercial capital with 2.5 million people, from falling into rebel hands.
Yesterday, the regime was reported to have sent another 100 tanks to the city, moving them from the rural province of Idlib, which has been largely ceded to the rebels.
The insurgents are realistic about their chances of resisting a full-scale attack. "The army's reinforcements have arrived in Aleppo," Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), told AFP news agency.
"We expect a major offensive at any time, specifically on areas across the southern belt, from east to west."
Col Okaidi added: "There's no way to compare our capacity to theirs. They have tanks, we have medium and light weapons. But we believe in our struggle; they are fighting for nothing." Outside Aleppo, even apparently straightforward mopping-up operations have exposed the rebels' weakness. When they attacked a police station near al-Bab, one fighter was killed and the rest withdrew.
Meanwhile,a promised flood of weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar has yet to reach the rebels in this area. Their best chance of equipping themselves is to seize an armoury from the security forces.
"This is the calm before the storm. We are very nervous now and no one is leading us," said Ahmed Abdullah, a law lecturer. "Our fate is in God's hands only." (© Daily Telegraph, London)