By: Hadeel Al Shalchi | Reuters –
ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - Troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad assaulted rebel strongholds in Aleppo on Wednesday in one of their biggest ground attacks since rebels seized chunks of Syria's biggest city three weeks ago.
Assad must win the battle for Aleppo if he is to reassert his authority nationwide, although diverting military forces for an offensive to regain control there has already allowed rebels to seize large swathes of countryside in the north.
Aleppo, at the heart of Syria's failing economy, has taken a fearful pounding since the 17-month-old uprising against Assad finally took hold in a city that had stayed mostly aloof.
"We have retreated, get out of here," a lone rebel fighter yelled at Reuters journalists as they arrived in Aleppo's Salaheddine district. Nearby checkpoints that had been manned by rebel fighters for the last week had disappeared.
Syrian state television said government forces had pushed into Salaheddine , killing most of the rebels there, and had entered other parts of the city in a new offensive.
It said dozens of "terrorists" were killed in the central district of Bab al-Hadeed, close to Aleppo's ancient citadel, and Bab al-Nayrab in the southeast.
But a rebel spokesman in Salaheddine, the southern gateway to Aleppo, denied Assad's troops had taken full control. "Syrian forces are positioned on one side of Salaheddine but they haven't entered and clashes are continuing," Abu Mohammed said.
One activist with the rebel Free Syrian Army, who asked not to be named, said insurgents had fallen back to the nearby neighborhood of Saif al-Dawla, which was now under fire from army tanks inside Salaheddine and from combat jets.
The intensity of the conflict in Aleppo and elsewhere suggests that Assad remains determined to cling to power, with support from Iran and Russia, despite setbacks such as this week's defection of his newly installed prime minister.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition watchdog, said more than 60 people had been killed across Syria so far on Wednesday, including 15 civilians in Aleppo.
It put Tuesday's death toll at more than 240 nationwide.
STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL
Satellite images released by Amnesty International, obtained from July 23 to Aug 1, showed more than 600 craters, probably from artillery shelling, dotting Aleppo and its environs.
"Amnesty is concerned that the deployment of heavy weaponry in residential areas in and around Aleppo will lead to further human rights abuses and grave breaches of international law," the human rights group said, adding that both sides might be held criminally accountable for failing to protect civilians.
The military's assaults in Aleppo follow its successful drive to retake neighborhoods seized by rebels in Damascus after a July 18 bomb attack that killed four of Assad's closest aides, including his feared brother-in-law Assef Shawkat.
On Monday Assad suffered the embarrassment of seeing his prime minister, Riyad Hijab, defect after only two months in office. Hijab apparently fled to Jordan with his family.
Yet even such high-profile defections and outside diplomatic pressure seem unlikely to deflect Assad from what has become a bitter struggle for survival between mostly Sunni Muslim rebels and a ruling system dominated by the president's minority Alawite sect, an esoteric offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Jordan's King Abdullah said he believed Assad would stick to his guns. "He believes that he is in the right. I think that the regime feels that it has no alternative but to continue," the monarch told U.S.
broadcaster CBS. [ID:nL6E8J830X]
He said Assad might try to carve out an Alawite enclave if he could not control of all Syria, describing such a territorial breakup as the "worst-case scenario" for its neighbors.
"If Syria then implodes on itself that would create problems that would take us decades to come back from," Abdullah said.
Assad has little sympathy in Jordan or other Sunni-ruled Arab nations, but he can count on staunch support from Iran, whose Shi'ite leaders see Syria, along with Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah movement, as a pillar of an "axis of resistance" against the United States and Israel.
Syrian rebels, who have accused Iran of sending fighters to help Assad's forces, seized 48 Iranians in Syria on August 4, saying they were members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi acknowledged that some of the men were retired soldiers or Revolutionary Guards, but said they were religious pilgrims, not on active service.
A Syrian rebel spokesman said on Monday that three of the kidnapped Iranians had been killed in a government air strike and the rest would be executed if the attacks did not stop.
Damascus and Tehran accuse Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Western nations of stoking violence by backing Syrian rebels.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country had warned Iran "in a frank and friendly manner" against blaming Ankara for bloodshed in Syria.
"Such statements have the potential to harm Iran as well," he said on Wednesday a day after holding talks with Salehi, his Iranian counterpart.
Turks were incensed by comments this week by Iran's top general Hassan Firouzabadi, in which he blamed Turkey for the bloodshed in Syria and accused Ankara, alongside Saudi Arabia and Qatar, of helping the "war-raging goals of America".
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for a political solution in Syria. "Every day in which military clashes continue in this country, the situation becomes more complex and the future darkens," state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying.
Iran, along with the Shi'ite-led government in Iraq and big powers Russia and China, has resisted any agreement on Syria that requires Assad to quit as part of any political transition.
Russia, which has scores of advisers and technicians in Syria, some of them at a Russian naval maintenance base in the port of Tartus, has given Assad solid diplomatic cover.
Along with China, it has vetoed three Western-backed United Nations Security Council resolutions aimed at intensifying pressure on the Syrian leader to step down, rather than using force to crush opposition to four decades of Assad family rule.
The violence in Syria has forced tens of thousands of people to flee into neighboring countries, and about 2,400 refugees, including two generals, arrived in Turkey overnight.
Turkey's state-run Anatolian news agency said most of them were women and children from areas near Aleppo and the northwestern city of Idlib, but also included 37 defecting military personnel.
Nine were receiving hospital treatment.
Before the latest influx, Turkey said it was sheltering 47,500 Syrians fleeing a conflict which opposition sources say has cost at least 18,000 people since it began in March 2011.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Oliver Holmes, Dominic Evans and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Mehmet Emin Caliskan in Kilis, and Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai; Writing by Alistair Lyon)