As Syrian Troops Pour Into Aleppo, Rebels Warn of Drawn-Out War

The Syrian Army is trying to prevent the country’s commercial capital from becoming a base for a rebel offensive against Damascus.

Bulent Kilic, AFP / Getty Images

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 is now fighting with the rebels. He predicted a guerrilla war in Aleppo for months to come.

"Aleppo is very strategic for the regime and they will not give it up. We have to fight rolling battles with shifting targets. They will send additional forces again and again,” he said.

With rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting in several areas of the city, including the old town, the regime diverted an armored column from the Turkish border to seize back the initiative. Helicopter gunships continued to strafe the city, although there was no repeat of the ground attack by jet fighters that the FSA claimed had happened on Tuesday.

The rebel strategy centers on taking narrow streets and high-profile installations like the airport and radio towers, said Gen Filistini. “We can create areas that we can control, but it will not be fixed—just difficult to take back,” he said. The rebels would exploit the “narrow streets 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 told The Daily Telegraph he had counted 25 dead bodies in just one hour in the city center as the army’s Russian-made helicopter gunships raked the streets with machine-gun fire.

Another activist, Farouk Al-Ahmad, claimed that FSA fighters had destroyed 4 tanks in the vanguard of the regime’s armored 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, allied with the Aleppo merchant class during his 30-year presidency. Until the last few weeks, Aleppo was relatively unaffected by the uprising.

Even if the regime manages to reimpose its authority over the city, however, Aleppo is much more fractured than before. To the north, where Islamist currents run strong, the key towns of Azaz, Hreitan, and Anadan are opposition strongholds. Inside the city, factory owners are realizing support for the regime is no longer in their interests. Their employees have turned against Mr. Assad, trade has been paralyzed, 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 supplies 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. The regime, by contrast, was benefiting from significant outside support, deploying “Iranian technology and Russian guns.”

Despite an official announcement that the regime’s stockpiles of chemical weapons would “never” be used against Syrian citizens, there are still widespread fears. Ahmed Kassem, an FSA spokesman, said the government was storing chemical weapons at airports.

“We know the purpose here is to bomb the rebels with chemical weapons because these are deployed by airplanes and that’s why they moved the weapons close by the airports.”

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Former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair yesterday said the West must do all it could to persuade Mr. Assad to step down.

Blair said of Syria’s civil war, “the sooner it ends the sooner the slaughter will end and also the sooner you can try and repair what will now be deep, deep hatreds amongst parts of the community there.”

Syria’s charge d’affairs in Cyprus, Lamia Hariri, has defected to the rebels. Some reports suggest that her husband, who serves as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, had also changed sides. Earlier this month, Syria’s envoy to Iraq became the first senior diplomat to defect.