The waiting game in Syria seemed nearly at an end on Friday, as rebel forces and the army looked poised to begin a massive showdown in Aleppo, the country’s most populous city and commercial center. Over the past few days, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been marshalling its forces to converge on Aleppo’s outskirts, reportedly massing tanks and government troops in what experts say could be the most important showdown with the insurgents to date. By Friday mid-day, reports had emerged of helicopter and ground bombardment of the city, and a rebel commander told Reuters that the regime was “shelling at random to instill a state of terror.”
While fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) vowed to fight to hold rebel-controlled areas in Aleppo, the group’s Turkey-based leadership admitted that its fighters were badly overmatched. Speaking earlier this week from the Apaydin refugee camp near the Turkish border, where the FSA’s military council lives in exile, the council’s top official, Gen. Mustafa Sheikh, said that his disorganized and lightly armed forces were not prepared to take and hold a city of Aleppo’s size. “We’re not there yet,” he said in an interview with Newsweek/ The Daily Beast.
Others fear a massacre is imminent. Spokespeople for the U.S. State Department and the United Nations voiced concerns in the international media on Friday that the regime is lining up to annihilate Aleppo’s residents. Many Syrian exiles agree: “I think it will be a genocide,” said one longtime antiregime activist after meeting with FSA general Apaydin in the camp on Friday. Throughout the week, refugees from the city streamed across the Turkish border to escape the anticipated carnage. Citizens who remained kept behind shuttered stores and stayed off the streets. The al-Assad regime has painted its battle to clear Aleppo of fighters it terms “terrorists” as a decisive one in the grinding conflict.
As Aleppo braced for the onslaught, tentative plans for a transitional government were taking shape outside of the country—something some FSA generals said would only serve to further weaken their already scattered war effort. The Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC) met in Qatar this week to discuss the possibility of an Egypt-style supreme military council to replace al-Assad. But speaking from Apaydin on Friday, two leading members of the FSA council, Gen. Fayed Amr and Gen. Hussain Mohamad, warned that the plans were distracting from the war effort. “The international community is giving these people legitimacy while there are true generals who have defected from the regime” who have received little in the way of international support, Amr said. “It’s a joke.”
A point of particular contention was the name that has been floated as a new transitional body’s possible leader: Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, the highest-profile member of al-Assad’s inner circle to defect so far. Tlass put himself forward for such a role in Qatar this week.
Labeled by some as a “former golden boy” of the al-Assad regime, Tlass hails from a family considered particularly close to the al-Assads—his father was the longtime minister of defense for Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. Tlass’s much-publicized defection earlier this month was seen as a significant blow to the regime.
It has also led to speculation over his intentions, however, and suspicions were evident in Apaydin on Friday—suggesting that the al-Assads’ specter continues to loom large over the opposition. “We believe that he is the hidden shadow of Bashar,” Mohamad said.