article

08.01.12

Syria’s Assault on Aleppo Stalls

The country’s rebels now believe they can capture the country's biggest city within days despite being outgunned.

By Damien McElroy, Richard Spencer and Magdy Samaan

The Syrian government's assault on Aleppo appeared to have stalled on Tuesday night as rebels claimed new victories against the increasingly demoralised troops of Bashar al-Assad.

Rebels now believe they can capture the country's biggest city within days despite being outgunned.

On Tuesday they stormed a number of bases including police stations in Aleppo suburbs, killing as many as 40 members of the security forces, following their capture of a key checkpoint on the road to the Syrian border the day before.

State media meanwhile said troops were still "pursuing terrorists" in the suburb of Salaheddin, which on Monday it claimed to control, as well a list of other districts.

Mohana Abu Bakri, commander of the rebel Abu Emara Battalion, told The Daily Telegraph the front line in

Salaheddin remained where it had been the day before, despite heavy fighting. Other rebels reported bombing runs by both jets and helicopters.

"Thanks to the shelling there is hardly a street without holes in its houses or totally collapsed houses," he said.

The regime has been forced into using air power as tanks, even those not ambushed on their way in as increasing numbers have been, are proving an ineffective tool in the city's narrow streets.

Rebel units scattered for cover during an air attack on Miayasr in Aleppo's south, next to Salaheddin, following the predawn rebel capture of two police stations, a military court, an air force intelligence headquarters and a branch of the ruling Ba'ath party.

Louay Mokdar, an organiser for the Free Syrian Army in Turkey, claimed the dead from the police station attacks included a colonel, as well as intelligence officers and members of the "shabiha" militia. Dozens more were captured and taken to rebel prisons.

It is now 12 days since a sudden push swept the rebels into the metropolis of two million, with the government counter-attack coming four days ago.

The course of the battle so far has bolstered rebel confidence. The Syrian army has moved cautiously under the cover of artillery fire and air support.

But the rebels were increasingly bullish on Tuesday.

"We don't have goals for the coming months. We have goals for the coming days. Within days, God willing, Aleppo will be liberated," said Col Abdel-Jabber al-Oqaidi, head of the Joint Military Council in Aleppo, who defected from the Syrian army six months ago.

"We secure our areas and then move to other neighbourhoods, pushing towards the city centre.

‘We don't have goals for the coming months. We have goals for the coming days. Within days, God willing, Aleppo will be liberated,’ said Col Abdel-Jabber al-Oqaidi, head of the Joint Military Council in Aleppo

"The regime's capabilities are also being weakened. They can shell us from afar with tanks and helicopters. But inside their morale is zero."

Four tank crews in Salaheddin surrendered as soon as opposition fighters appeared. Mr Abu Bakri said 16 defectors had crossed over to his side in Salaheddin yesterday and 30-40 more in a neighbouring district.

Taha Ahmed, a military vet who works on securing defections from an Army Ranger's base north of Aleppo said his task was becoming easier.

"The officers have been too scared to move but they are now talking with us," he said. "We have some infiltrators inside and we are gaining day by day defectors to join the Free Syria Army."

Abu Abdul Jabr, another rebel leader, said he believed the fight for Aleppo would be finished by the end of Ramadan, the holy fasting month, in mid-August.

"The government controls nothing any more, except through shelling and artillery," the bearded former interior decorator said in the front line town of Marea. "They can make a massacre but that is it.

"We have the resolution to fight. It means with us one month on the streets is equivalent to five years in military services. The troops don't have the strength to match us and are defecting whenever they can."

But the rebels do not have things all their own way. The regime still has troops in reserve, and is luring the opposition out.

Three rebel convoys were ambushed on Tuesday. In one case, a detachment of 20 men that went to relieve an outpost on the Nerha bridge on the edge of Salaheddin thought it had forged a deal for safe passage with a local family but found itself walking into a trap.

As rebel cars circled a roundabout, Shabiha gunmen opened fire. Grenades were thrown and security forces snipers targeted drivers. By the time the squad withdrew eight were dead.