The pro-government Syrian Alwatan daily newspaper describes the fierce clashes in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, as the “mother of all battles”.
Aleppo has been a solid pillar of support for president Bashar al-Assad. Despite a bloody uprising dragging on for more than a year throughout the country, Aleppo had been quiet.
For 12 days, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had surprised everyone when fighters sprang forth in one neighbourhood after another.
Hundreds of well-armed fighters want to bring Aleppo into the mix as a city which opposes the regime.
Most of these fighters are not from the city. They came from its countryside where they had already been involved in armed confrontation with the Syrian army for months.
Their families had reached Aleppo months earlier. When Syrian government troops pounded the rebellious villages in the city’s countryside, residents fled and took shelter in Aleppo’s poor neighbourhoods, like Salaheddin and al-Sakhour.
Fleeing families told restive city residents their stories of government brutality and offered hope of a new Syria without President al-Assad.
A support base for the FSA was built up and when some of the FSA members themselves fled government repression to Aleppo, they found a warm shelter, sympathy and support.
Caught off guard
The Syrian army seems to have been caught off guard in Aleppo. Initially, it didn’t have many troops inside the city itself.
When the FSA claimed to have taken over neighbourhoods, oftentimes fighters simply entered showing up with their guns. Often, in the beginning, FSA fighters did not have to wage serious battles, as government forces were not deployed in what was considered their own backyard.
Images from Aleppo show deserted streets, gun battles in its alleyways and serious destruction, but this is the case only in some neighbourhoods.
Aleppo is a big city of about 3 million people. Some neighbourhoods are still calm and quiet, but residents are restless. The battles are at their doorsteps, there is a shortage of everything, no gas, no wheat, nor government services of any kind. Hospitals have been taken over either by the government forces or by the armed rebels. Many of the doctors have fled the city or are staying home, as hospitals have become unsafe.
Tens of thousands of Aleppo residents have fled the city already. The airport is still functioning, but getting there has become a risky, as some of the roads leading to it pass through the al-Sakhour neighbourhood and other hotspots.
The Syrian army and the FSA are besieging each other.
Syrian army troops that had been brought into the city are used to besiege it in an attempt to cut the supply lines for the rebels inside.
But at the same time, supply lines for government forces are not safe either. Tanks and convoys of different supplies are being ambushed and attacked as they travel on the main highways leading to Aleppo, especially roads that go through its countryside.
In FSA strongholds, many residents have left fearing shelling from the government. But the FSA is losing some of the support it had amongst the residents.
The presence of foreign fighters, especially “Jihadis”, alienates the FSA from Aleppo residents. Some anti-regime activists in Aleppo have been making their voices louder as they criticise the FSA’s tactics, which are sometimes perceived as overwhelmingly forceful with no consideration of what the people of Aleppo want.
But the FSA has another element to its advantage; their determination is strong in contrast to the Syrian army’s deteriorating spirits.
An explosion that killed four high ranking officials two weeks ago, including the defence minister, had dealt the army a big blow. Since then, army soldiers and officers starting to have doubts about the regime’s strength and its ability to survive.
Many are now disillusioned on what this battle is all about; they are not as eager to fight as the FSA members, who have been emboldened by the progress they are making. Rebel fighters are pushed by a strong desire to get back at the regime’s harsh measures and they have been showered with political support, money and guns by outside forces, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
The government is trying to flush the armed rebels out of Aleppo without alienating President al-Assad’s support base.
That means, the army should try to avoid targeting civilians. But how can it when using artillery and helicopter gunships to target rebel stronghold in the city?
Syria’s largest city and the country’s commercial and industrial hub is a must win for the regime if it’s to win the war against the rebels. The government simply cannot afford to lose Aleppo, which is close to the border with Turkey; one of al-Assad’s enemies in the region.
The government wants to make sure Aleppo doesn’t turn into another Benghazi.
The rebels are trying to open a direct corridor from Aleppo to the border, out of the government control and fire. For the opposition to win, Aleppo must join the revolution.
But people inside the city say a decisive win by either side is not attainable, at least not in the near future.