Battle for Aleppo rages as opposition pleads for outside military help

Battle for Aleppo rages as opposition pleads for outside military help

A Free Syrian Army fighter runs for cover during heavy fighting in the Salaheddine district of embattled Aleppo. (Photo: Reuters)

August 12, 2012, Sunday/ 15:55:00/ TODAY'S ZAMAN WITH WIRES

Despite their superior firepower, Assad's forces have been stretched by months of warfare against increasingly skilled and organized fighters who have taken them on in every city and in many parts of the countryside at one time or another. Two Syrian journalists were killed in the capital damascus, state media and an arab satellite television station reported

Syrian government tanks and troops battled opposition forces near the shattered district of Salaheddine, a former opposition stronghold that commands the main southern approach to Aleppo, activists said on Sunday.

Tank fire crashed into the adjacent Saif al-Dawla neighborhood as military jets circled over an abandoned police station held by rebels, firing missiles every few minutes.

Opposition fighters said they had been forced to retreat in the latest twist in relentless, see-saw battles for Salaheddine, part of a swath of Aleppo seized by rebels last month.

Some opposition fighters, outgunned and low on ammunition in Aleppo, have pleaded for outside military help, arguing that more weapons and a no-fly zone over areas they control near the Turkish border would give them a secure base against Assad's forces

“The reason we retreated from Salaheddine this week is a lack of weapons,” complained Abu Thadet, a opposition commander in Aleppo who said his fighters would regroup and fight back. “We can handle the bombing. It's the snipers that make it hard.”

In Damascus, where Assad's forces have regained control of districts overrun by rebels last month, a resident reported an explosion near the Central Bank, followed by gunfire.

“The explosion was huge. There has been fighting for the past half-hour along Pakistan Street. I am very close. Can you hear that?” she told Reuters, a bang audible over the telephone.

Syrian state TV said authorities were hunting “terrorists” who had set off a bomb in Merjeh, an area near the central bank, and who were “shooting at random to spark panic among citizens.”

At least 11 people were killed on Saturday when government forces mounted an armored attack to try to regain the area the Sunni Muslim north Damascus suburb of al-Tel, activists said.

“The army pushed tanks, armored personnel carriers and pick-up trucks equipped with heavy machine-guns toward Tel in the morning and fighting has been raging for the last 12 hours,” said Alam, one of the opposition activists, who gave only his first name for fear of retribution.

“They did not manage to go in. The Free Syrian Army had booby trapped the entrances to Tel and four armor pieces have been destroyed,” he added.

End game begins

Despite their superior firepower, Assad's forces have been stretched by months of warfare against increasingly skilled and organized fighters who have taken them on in every city and in many parts of the countryside at one time or another.   

Germany's spy chief said the Syrian army had been depleted by casualties, deserters and defectors.

“There are a lot of indications that the end game for the regime has begun,” said Gerhard Schindler, head of the BND intelligence agency, in an interview with Die Welt newspaper.

“The regular army is being confronted by a variety of flexible fighters. The recipe of their success is their guerrilla tactics. They're breaking the army's back.”

Syria's torment, however, is far from over and several signs point to how the conflict could spill over into its neighbors.

Jordanian and Syrian forces clashed along the border in the early hours of Saturday when refugees tried to cross to Jordan, a Syrian opposition activist who witnessed the fighting said.

Thousands of Syrians have fled into Jordan, but tensions heightened after Assad's newly installed prime minister, Riad Hijab, defected and escaped across the border this week.

Assad's main outside allies are Shiite Iran and Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement. His ruling system is dominated by members of his Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

His foes are mostly from Syria's Sunni majority, who are backed by Sunni-ruled states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, which are also regional rivals of Iran.

The Arab League said it had postponed a meeting of Arab foreign ministers scheduled for Sunday to discuss the Syria crisis and to select a replacement for Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy, and would set a new date.

Deputy Arab League chief Ahmed Ben Helli told Reuters the meeting was delayed because of the minor operation undergone by Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. The royal court said on Saturday that he had undergone a successful operation to relieve an intestinal obstruction.

Ben Helli said the Arab ministers, who had been due to meet in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, would set a new date to gather. The Arab ministers meeting was to have been held before Muslim leaders meet in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for an Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit.

2 Syrian journalists killed in Damascus

Two Syrian journalists were killed in the capital Damascus, state media and an Arab satellite television station reported on Sunday.

Activists reported more clashes in some Damascus suburbs, the battleground city of Aleppo in the north, central Homs province, and the restive southern town of Daraa. The UK-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had no immediate reports of casualties.

SANA said one of its reporters, Ali Abbas, was killed at his residence in Damascus. The report blamed an “armed terrorist group” -- the regime's catch-all term for its opponents -- but gave no further details.

Pan-Arab satellite news channel Al-Arabiya television said that Bara'a Yusuf al-Bushi, a Syrian national and army defector who worked with the station and several other international news organizations, was killed in a bomb attack while covering a story in al-Tal, a suburb in northern Damascus.

Both reporters were reported killed on Saturday. Journalists have suffered a number of casualties in the 17-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, and in recent months there have been several attacks on pro-regime media.

Activists say more than 20,000 people have been killed since the revolt began in March 2011.

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