Fighting has spread to "wide swaths" of Aleppo and the Syrian government has "rushed dozens of tanks and reinforcements" to the city lest the regime lose control of Syria's economic heart, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. -- CNN has a team inside northern Syria, and Ivan Watson filmed and interviewed some of the rebels fighting in Aleppo. -- The BBC reported that Syrian government forces had been surprised in Aleppo when "large numbers of fighters and quantities of weapons and ammunition were smuggled in from across this large northern province," many of them "battle-hardened and experienced." -- "They now appear to be receiving a steady flow of ammunition and some weapons, albeit small arms and rocket-propelled grenades," said Ian Pannell. -- "Much of it seems to be coming across the increasingly porous border from Turkey." -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton predicted that the battle "will result in a safe haven inside Syria, which will then provide for further actions by the opposition,” the Irish Times reported early Thursday. -- But the London Telegraph noted that the Assad regime was founded on an alliance with the Aleppo bourgeoisie, and that the regime was determined to do it all it could to prevent the city from falling into rebel hands. -- However, "[i]nside the city," Damien McElroy reported, "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." ...
SYRIA RUSHES REINFORCEMENTS TO ITS LARGEST CITY
By Elizabeth A. Kennedy
July 25, 2012
BEIRUT -- Syrian troops rushed dozens of tanks and reinforcements Wednesday toward Aleppo, the country's strategically vital commercial capital, in a bid to crush a rebel advance that has spread to wide swaths of the sprawling city.
As five days of fighting in Aleppo intensified, and with rumors swirling of a final showdown in that city, neighboring Turkey tightened its borders but said refugees will be allowed through.
"We are expecting a big attack on Aleppo," Mohammed Saeed, an activist based in Aleppo, told the Associated Press. "People are worried they might face random shelling while fleeing."
The rebels have made stunning advances over the past week, but the battle for control of Syria, a geographic and political linchpin at the heart of the Middle East, is far from over. And the potential for wider, regional unrest is great.
Israel's foreign minister warned that his country will act immediately if it discovers Islamic militants such as Lebanon's Hezbollah are raiding Syria's chemical or biological weapons stocks.
"For us, that's a casus belli, a red line," Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio.
Israeli officials have reported a run on gas masks. Demand has almost doubled in the past few days, to 4,200 requests on Tuesday from a years-old average of about 2,200, said Merav Lapidot, a spokeswoman for the Israeli postal service, which distributes the masks.
On Monday, Syria threatened to unleash its chemical and biological weapons if it faces a foreign attack.
The White House said Wednesday that the Syrian government's assault on Aleppo with tanks and fixed-wing aircraft illustrates what it called "the depth of depravity" by Assad's regime.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration has seen "credible" reports about the regime's use of military hardware in Aleppo. Carney said Assad was using its forces to "perpetrate heinous violence" against the city's civilian population.
Carney also pointed to defections by two Syrian ambassadors as an indication that officials in Assad's circle are "fleeing government because of the heinous actions taken by Assad."
Still, after 17 months of fighting and a death toll that activists say has reached 19,000 people, the government remains far better armed than the rebels and willing to launch attacks from the sky, strafing neighborhoods with helicopter gunships. In Aleppo, witnesses also have reported warplanes unleashing sonic booms.
The rebels are disorganized and disparate, unable to communicate on a national level or hold territory for long. After a rebel rush on the capital, Damascus, last week -- including a brazen bombing that killed four regime insiders -- the government routed the fighters by calling in attack helicopters and heavy weapons that devastated entire neighborhoods.
Regime forces followed up the shelling with door-to-door searches in Damascus that were still going on Wednesday to flush out remaining rebel sympathizers.
The escalating bloodshed prompted two more defections by Syrian diplomats Wednesday -- the envoy to Cyprus and her husband, the former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, according to the opposition Syrian National Council. The announcement follows the televised appearance late Tuesday by Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, who confirmed his defection and said Syrians must work together to build a new country.
It was his first public appearance since he left Syria earlier this month. French officials later confirmed that he was in France. Tlass is the son of a former Syrian defense minister.
Turkey's decision to seal its border to trucks Wednesday comes as fears mount that the 17-month-old crisis in Syria will spread. Syria's close ties to Iran and Hezbollah mean that the conflict has the potential to draw in the country's neighbors.
Iran's Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said there are no Iranian troops in Syria and that the Syrian government is capable of confronting terrorists -- the regime's term for its opponents -- the semiofficial Fars news agency reported Wednesday. Vahidi was reacting to reports that accuse Iran of deploying troops in Syria to help quell the armed uprising against Assad's government.
Turkey was a Syrian ally before the uprising began in March 2011, but Ankara is now among the harshest critics of Damascus. Turkish territory along the countries' 566-mile (911-kilometer) border is used as a staging ground for rebel fighters as well as a haven for thousands of refugees. Before the uprising began, the border was the transit point for food and construction materials that Turkey exported to the entire Middle East.
"We have serious concerns over the safety of Turkish trucks regarding their entry and return from Syria," Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan said, adding that three border crossings were in rebel hands. Syrians seeking refuge or to resupply would still be allowed in.
The battle in Aleppo is just 40 miles (60 kilometers) from the Turkish border. Aleppo is Syria's largest city, with a population of about 3 million.
On Wednesday, Saeed, the Aleppo activist, described fierce battles in neighborhoods all over the city, including some near the center.
Aleppo's historic old city at the center is a U.N. world heritage site.
"Shooting and clashes are going on nonstop," Saeed said.
There are no immediate prospects for international action in Syria or the kind of NATO air campaign that tipped the scales against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. NATO and the U.N. have all but ruled out foreign military intervention, in part out of fears that it would only make the country's problems worse. The U.S. and its allies have shown little appetite for getting involved in another Arab nation in turmoil.
Russia, Syria's longtime ally and a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, has ensured that the kind of U.N. resolutions that allowed Western military action in Libya would not be repeated in Syria. On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized new European efforts to enforce an arms embargo as "unilateral sanctions" and a "blockade."
The new commander of the U.N. observer force, Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye, and the U.N. official for peacekeeping operations, Hervé Ladsous, were in Damascus on Wednesday to assess the prospects for a U.N. peace plan that is being widely ignored.
Half of the 300-member U.N. observer force, meant to monitor the nonexistent cease-fire, has left the country.
"I think diplomats have to be optimistic and that's no joke, I think we have to hope," Ladsous told reporters. "We have to hope that the whole process gains traction, that the vicious circle of violence can cease, and that some political solution and first and foremost some political dialogue can get started."
--Associated Press writers Paul Schemm in Beirut, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Natalya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Adam Schreck in Dubai contributed to this report.
INSIDE SYRIA: FOREIGN FIGHTERS JOIN SYRIA REBELS IN ALEPPO BATTLE
By Ivan Watson
July 25, 2012
Editor’s note: Rebels over the past few days have battled Syrian government forces in the northwestern city of Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital. It's a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and home to about 4 million people. The battle is part of a 16-month conflict in Syria that began elsewhere in the country when a fierce government crackdown on protesters morphed into a nationwide uprising against the regime.
CNN’s Ivan Watson and crew are some of the few Western reporters in Syria, whose government has been restricting access on foreign journalists and refusing many of them entry. Below is an edited account of what Watson has seen and been told in rebel-controlled towns near Aleppo on Wednesday:
People in every village in Aleppo province that CNN has visited say they’ve sent fighters to try to capture Aleppo. The bulk of the fighters are Syrian, but CNN has seen some foreigners among them.
There seems to be constant movement between these opposition-held enclaves and Aleppo, with some fighters leaving Aleppo to move their fallen comrades, and other, fresher fighters moving in. In the past two days, CNN’s crew has passed two funerals in area villages for two rebel fighters who were killed in Aleppo.
The fighting in the region is having a visible effect on civilian life. Cars, trucks, and vans loaded with civilians are leaving Aleppo. Some of those people earlier had left their villages to stay in Aleppo, because the city had been a safe haven until fighting began on Friday. But now some are going back to the villages they’d left.
Still, villages look increasingly deserted as you get closer to the big city. In the village of Injara, about 10 kilometers (a little over six miles) west of Aleppo, Sunni cleric Sheikh Ali Bukhro took CNN’s crew on a tour of the near-empty streets. He pointed out craters and holes in at least six stone houses, which he and residents said had been hit by rockets and artillery from a Syrian army base about four kilometers (2.5 miles) away.
“They hit us every night,” Bukhro said.
Other residents, mostly men who stayed behind to guard their homes, lamented that they hadn’t had electricity or running water in more than a month. Some men said they had sent their families to refugee camps in Turkey.
Villages and towns in this area have rebel brigades, and big cities have revolutionary councils that try to oversee the different militias that have sprung up. While most of the fighters are Syrian, some are foreigners who enter Syria through unofficial crossings at the Syria-Turkey border. Turkish border police generally have taken a laissez-faire approach to dealing with the fighters going into Syria, as well as with the civilians going back and forth between the countries (thousands of people have fled into Turkey to escape the fighting).
On Wednesday, CNN’s crew met a Libyan fighter who had crossed into Syria from Turkey with four other Libyans. The fighter wore full camouflage and was carrying a Kalashnikov rifle. He said more Libyan fighters were on the way.
“The foreign fighters, some of them are clearly drawn because they see this as . . . a jihad. So this is a magnet for jihadists who see this as a fight for Sunni Muslims,” Watson reported on CNN International’s “Amanpour” Wednesday night. “And that’s definitely cause for concern among some Syrian revolutionaries I know . . . who do not want an Islamist political agenda to be mixed in with their revolution.”
A majority of Syrians are Sunnis, and Sunnis make up a bulk of the opposition to Syria’s regime, which is dominated by minority Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Earlier this week, in neighboring Idlib province, residents of a village where the rebel Syrian Falcons brigade was headquartered said fighters of several North African nationalities were serving in the brigade, even though the group's leader insisted all of his fighters were Syrian. At least one armed man there introduced himself to CNN as a citizen of Turkey.
SYRIA'S REBELS SURPRISE THE REGIME IN ALEPPO
By Ian Pannell
July 25, 2012
The blackened carcasses of tanks and military supply vehicles on the streets of Aleppo's vast Sunni suburb are a testament to the battles already fought here.
A group of rebel fighters climbed aboard one of the tanks, waved their Kalashnikov rifles in the air, singing and chanting for the downfall of the family and party that has ruled them for more than four decades.
Abu Mohammed explained how they had prevailed: "We went through the back streets and attacked the convoy from the side with rocket-propelled grenades."
Some of the houses nearby had large, irregular-shaped holes punched into them by tank fire. Another had collapsed in on itself.
An old man with a worn face called Abdulrahman introduced himself as the owner of the house.
He said, "Before when we tried to demonstrate, bullets came from everywhere, but now we feel safe because the Free Syrian Army controls this area, they protect us."
The debris of rubble and twisted metal parts on the road marks a small defeat for the army and a gross miscalculation by local military commanders as to the strength of the rebellion they face in the city.
Perhaps with good cause. With the exception of peaceful protests by students at the university and others in some outlying districts, Aleppo has seen hardly any of the fighting and deaths that have occurred across Syria.
That all changed in the last six days as clashes erupted in a handful of districts, quickly spreading to others. The Free Syrian Army claims to control 70% of neighbourhoods in Aleppo.
That is impossible to independently verify -- and what will determine the outcome is not their level of "control" but their capacity to resist.
What changed here is that large numbers of fighters and quantities of weapons and ammunition were smuggled in from across this large northern province. The rebels have been involved in months of fierce fighting and are battle-hardened and experienced.
They now appear to be receiving a steady flow of ammunition and some weapons, albeit small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. Much of it seems to be coming across the increasingly porous border from Turkey.
So when government troops tried to wrest back control of the rebellious districts they were simply unprepared for the strength of the resistance.
Not any more -- restive neighborhoods are now being pounded by artillery, mortars, and helicopter gunfire with unverified reports of large-scale reinforcements heading to the city.
Tuesday marked a significant escalation by the military when air-force jets took to the skies, strafing rebel positions. We watched as the planes swooped low, banking and firing to the ground. It is a mark of how serious the fight here is and the government's desperation to hold onto the city.
We heard the crash and thump of artillery and mortar shells landing and exploding nearby and the near constant sound of gunfire. Snipers from both sides exchanged high-calibre shots as the volleys from street battles grew through the day.
Helicopters controlling the skies poured machine-gun fire to the ground as the rebels tried in vain to bring them down.
So the battle for Aleppo is now raging and it is one neither side can afford to lose.
The historic city is not only the largest in the country but its economic heart. The government derives material support from its merchant class and vital industries that supply the rest of the country.
The stakes could not be higher. For the armed opposition losing would be a disastrous setback that, at the very least, could neuter their revolution for months. For President Bashar al-Assad, losing Aleppo could be the tipping point that presages the downfall of his government.
Despite their confidence and commitment, the rebels remain vastly outgunned and, with reinforcements from the army, outmanned, and it is hard to see how they can prevail.
But many people here are desperate for the rebels to succeed, clamouring for the freedoms denied to them by their president and the ruling Ba'ath Party. They certainly enjoy widespread support in these vast poor suburbs from their fellow Sunni Muslims.
The opposition says it fights in the name of freedom and democracy. The government says its men are simply terrorists.
Many of the wealthier Sunni middle classes here share that view and, fearing economic ruin, they have sided with the government.
Aleppo is also home to a significant minority of Christians who have been reluctant to side with the opposition.
And as the rebels take over districts in the city many fear that what is really happening is an Islamic takeover that will unleash a whirlwind of sectarian division and bloodshed across this region.
POOLS OF BLOOD
Inevitably the flow of casualties has increased as the fighting intensifies.
Wounded fighters and screaming civilians were brought to a secret makeshift hospital for emergency treatment before being whisked away.
The floor is filthy with grime and pools of blood. With only paltry supplies the volunteer doctors struggle to help.
The U.N. estimates more than 10,000 people have died in a conflict that only continues to escalate.
The response from the international community has simply had no impact on the ground. However the battle for Aleppo ends, many more innocent people are likely to be killed, as both sides appear ready to fight to the bitter end.
SYRIAN REBELS FIGHT FOR CITY AMID HOPES OF A 'SAFE HAVEN'
By Michael Jansen and Mary Fitzgerald
July 26, 2012
BEIRUT -- Fighting continued in four rebel-infiltrated districts of Aleppo yesterday after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed confidence that Syrian rebels were capturing more territory. The rebel campaign “will result in a safe haven inside Syria, which will then provide for further actions by the opposition,” she stated.
Determined to deny the rebels Aleppo, the government has mounted a major counter-offensive.
An armored column was reported to be en route to the Aleppo front from the restive Idlib province while troops were being withdrawn from elsewhere along the Turkish border to take part in the operation in the city, 45km from the frontier.
“Aleppo . . . is strategically more important for the regime than Idlib,” explained Col Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi, the rebel Free Syrian Army’s spokesman in the city.
Lebanon, meanwhile, has asked Syria to avoid incursions or bombardments into Lebanese territory, following a number of incidents in which Lebanese civilians have been killed.
Several Lebanese, including women and children, have died during Syrian border incursions and mortar bomb attacks on Lebanese soil which Syria claims are aimed at rebel fighters who have crossed the border.
Ankara has closed all three border crossings between Turkey and Syria to commercial traffic following their seizure by rebels but will allow Syrian refugees to enter Turkey through these terminals.
Turkey has also permitted a surge in the flow of reinforcements and weapons into northern Syria since these crossings fell.
Sources in Aleppo have reported rebels establishing checkpoints, robbing passengers in cars, and fighting among themselves over positions.
Journalists accompanying rebel units in Aleppo have also reported executions of soldiers and pro-government Shabbiha militiamen. Amnesty International announced that it was investigating allegations that both sides were killing prisoners.
The U.N. Security Council last week raised concerns about cross-border attacks on Lebanon from Syria.
In a statement, it highlighted “repeated incidents of cross-border fire, incursions, abductions and arms trafficking across the Lebanese-Syrian border as well as other border violations”.
Lebanon’s foreign minister, Adnan Mansour, who is a supporter of President Bashar al-Assad, yesterday said a letter had been sent to the Syrian government through diplomatic channels which included “a reference to what happened on the border with the hopes of avoiding a recurrence.”
On Monday, Lebanese president Michel Suleiman asked Mr Mansour to deliver a letter of protest to Syria, a day after 30 Syrian soldiers raided homes on Lebanon’s northern flank.
Mr. Mansour, however, told Hizbullah-linked TV channel al-Manar that he wanted the incident investigated before he sent a letter.
“We deal with Syria as a sister state and this relationship will not be broken now or in the future,” Mr. Mansour said.
Helicopter gunships bombarded the Hajjar al-Aswad area on the southern edge of Damascus and troops shelled the Tal township in the northwest, opposition activists said.
The opposition Local Co-ordination Committees reported that the bodies of 11 executed men were found in the Qaboun district of Damascus after it was retaken by government troops. Activist Rania al-Midani said the men had been arrested in a nearby district several days earlier.
Lieut Gen Babacar Gaye, the new head of the U.N. monitoring mission in Syria, took up his post in Damascus and pledged to resume its operations.
Lieut Gen Gaye, a Senegalese who replaced the Norwegian Maj Gen Robert Mood, said the primary concern of the mission was to “alleviate the suffering of the population.”
The U.N.’s chief of peacemaking, Hervé Ladsous, warned that there had to be “specific and sustainable progress” in decreasing the level of violence and ending the use of heavy weapons if the mission is to remain beyond the 30-day extension granted by the Security Council.
Mr. Ladsous said that half of the 300 military observers had left, so that the “mission operates on a reduced basis, reduced in numbers, reduced in team sites in the provinces.”
However, he said it would try to launch a political process by pressing for the reduction of violence in the country.
Israeli chief-of-staff Lieut. Gen. Benny Gantz meanwhile told the Israeli parliament that a strike on Syria’s chemical weapons could spark a regional conflict and draw in external powers. He said Damascus had taken effective measures to control stockpiles.
Syrian ambassador to Cyprus Lamia Hariri and her husband, envoy to the United Arab Emirates Abdel Latif al-Dabbagh, have defected and flown to Qatar.
Envoys to Sweden and Iraq previously defected in protest against the regime’s crackdown.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Washington’s reaction to the blast that killed four members of the government’s crisis management team amounted to “a direct endorsement of terrorism” and called the U.S. position “sinister.”
REGIME TROOPS POUR INTO ALEPPO AS REBELS WARN OF DRAWN-OUT GUERILLA WAR
By Damien McElroy (Aleppo province), Adrian Blomfield, and Magdy Samaan
July 25, 2012
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 rake the city, although there was no repeat of the ground attack by jet fighters which 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 centre as the army's Russian-made helicopters 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's manages to reimpose its authority on 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 ten times the old price," said Gen. Filistini. The regime, by contrast, was benefiting from significant outside support, deploying "Iranian technology and Russia 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."
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday said the West must do all it could to persuade Mr. Assad to step down.
Mr. 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 chargé 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.
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