Syrian rebels say they are digging in for a war of attrition in Aleppo, where what was being billed as the “mother of all battles” is now dragging on into a second month of bloody stalemate.
Aleppo is bearing the brunt of attacks by government warplanes, tanks and heavy artillery as the army battles to dislodge rebels who claim to control 60 percent of the battered northern metropolis.
“We don’t have enough weapons, they (the Syrian army) don’t have enough men,” said Abu Haidar, a rebel fighter in Saif al-Dawla, a district in the city’s southwestern belt where much of the fighting is concentrated.
At least 200,000 people have fled the city since late July when the increasingly bloody conflict spread to Aleppo, a once thriving manufacturing and commercial hub where war has now left a trail of destruction, with bombed out buildings and shuttered shops.
“It is a long war. Each party wants to settle the score, but it is a war of attrition that will drag on, with bombardments and fighting every day,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog that has a network of sources on the ground.
Some rebel commanders say they are aware that even if the Free Syrian Army — a motley collection of armed opposition groups — seizes full control on the ground, they will remained besieged from the air by the military’s far superior firepower.
“Bashar al-Assad is like a wounded animal now, so I don’t expect him and his army to follow a logic,” Abu Mohamed, who leads a small katiba (brigade) near the Citadel in old Aleppo, said of the embattled Syrian president..
“I sometimes think he wants us to take the ground and then surround the city and starve us. He can then wait, try to cut us off and hope that we make mistakes, that civilians turn against us,” he told AFP.
Abu Mohammed defected from the army three years ago and found political asylum in Belgium before crossing back into Syria via Turkey more than a year ago when the revolution started.
A top FSA commander in Aleppo, Abdel Jabba al-Okaidi, told AFP on Tuesday that the rebels now controlled more than 60 percent of the city, but this was rejected as “completely false” by a security source in Damascus.
And on Thursday, the army said it had recaptured three Christian neighbourhoods in the heart of the predominantly Sunni Muslim city, whose fate is seen as crucial to the outcome of the war, in part because of its strategic location near Turkey.
The Damascus security source said rebel ranks were swelling in terms of men but that the opposition fighters were lacking in arms as government air strikes had destroyed many weapons caches.
“The army is trying to create security zones,” the source said, by carving up neighbourhoods using troops and tanks to control the main streets and then “cleansing” each area of rebels.
“It’s a long process,” he said.
Amnesty International said this week that civilians were facing “horrific” violence in Aleppo and indiscriminate attacks by regime troops, reporting scores of civilians killed or wounded in their homes or while queuing for bread.
Assad’s men now control the Citadel, an ancient fortress in the heart of the Old City, but rebel fighters are surrounding the area and often take pot-shots at the troops.
Not far away, in the Qastal Harami alleyways of the Old City, the Katiba Khuttab brigade of fighters were manning a sniper post set up behind a stack of sandbags just outside a bookshop.
The brigade commander, Khuttab, paced over cobblestones that have been covered with stickers featuring Assad’s face, so his fighters can trample on their enemy.
“The people in this area have mostly left, they are poor, so they don’t provide us with help as such, in fact we try to give those who are left behind help. But they all support us,” he told AFP.
Some rebels said the reason Assad’s forces do not launch a wider ground assault to reconquer Aleppo and use their greater firepower to break the back of the rebellion could be linked to its military failure in the town of Aazaz, which lies north of Aleppo near the Turkish border.
Government forces stormed Aazaz in February but the FSA seized control at the end of July after five months of fierce fighting.
“Assad’s army had prepared a large ground offensive but when the time came to fight, the soldiers were divided and fought among themselves,” said Abdullah, a rebel who defected from the army a year ago.
“Assad now knows he cannot trust his own men, if he wants to send troops into the field. Aazaz was on a relatively small scale, but if he deploys 20,000 men for an assault on Aleppo and the same kind of thing happens, imagine the consequences.
“It would be the end of his credibility, the entire army would defect, the regime would collapse.
“Assad cannot afford that risk, so he’s happy to use just tanks, Iranian snipers and jets flown by Russian pilots,” Abdullah charged.