In an apartment on the west side of Aleppo, a Syrian general clutches an iPad, its screen showing a Google map depicting every block of the Seif al-Dawla neighbourhood.
On a nearby coffee table lie walkie-talkies captured from rebel forces, with which he hopes to listen in on their conversations, and other devices he uses to stay in contact with his officers on the ground.
“Advance up to Block 4, but do not open fire on your right. I have sent another team there, and I do not want you to shoot them,” joked the balding general, charged with the regime’s military operations in the west of Aleppo.
The general, a member of the army’s elite Republican Guard, is running the regime’s operations in some of the most brutal battles in the city.
“We must take the terrorist-held areas, while minimising the destruction to the city and keep the civilian population on our side,” said the 53-year-old, using the regime’s standard term for the rebels.
In other cities that the Syrian army has battled rebels during the country’s 17-month uprising, artillery would first soften up the targets and then infantry forces move in.
But in Aleppo, the army is engaged in urban warfare for the first time, engaging in constant battles to grab hold of each street, block, or intersection.
“We have divided up into small groups of around 40 highly mobile men, armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rockets, and we communicate with our chief,” said a colonel in Seif al-Dawla.
The artillery, tanks and helicopters are intended to be used only in support.
“We have in front of us terrorists who occupy land with gunmen carrying out ambushes, or bombings,” said the colonel. “We should therefore first check the buildings, and then defuse the bombs to ensure that the area is safe.”
Since early August, the army has deployed is elite units to Aleppo. The Republican Guard is responsible for retaking the west of the city and special forces have been tasked with the centre.
Over the past two weeks, they have wrested control of the Christian neighbourhood of Judeidah, in Aleppo’s old city, and are advancing on Sayyed Ali.
Outside Aleppo, the military has been carrying out daily bombing campaigns, with the two-pronged approach aimed at choking off the rebel effort.
The Republican Guard general had no doubt of an eventual victory. Arguing his point, he insisted that the hardest tasks have already been completed with the conquests of the two strategically important districts of Salaheddine and Seif al-Dawla.
Key neighbourhoods still remain in rebel hands, though — Izaa, in the west, and Soukkari, in the southwest.
An offensive on eastern Aleppo is planned for later.
The general insisted that rebels would advance no further.
Salaheddine, criss-crossed with narrow streets as and with five- and six-storey buildings, makes for brutal urban combat, and army officers claim it is the neighbourhood through which rebels launched offensives across Aleppo.
Regime forces argue that rebels entered the district by posing as civilians fleeing fighting in Idlib and Jabal Zawiya.
“For pity’s sake, we let them in without even searching them,” said one officer.
They also blame Brigadier General Mohammed Maflah, the former head of military intelligence in Aleppo, who switched sides.
“He gave them the keys to the city,” said the same officer.
Maflah, who defected two weeks before the rebel offensive on Aleppo, is believed to have been killed before crossing into Turkey.
According to the general in charge of operations in west Aleppo, troops have killed 2,000 rebels.
“There are some Syrians from the north and the countryside near Aleppo (among the rebels), but many are foreigners — Chechens, Turks, Afghans, Libyans and Tunisians,” he claimed, holding out identity papers that appeared to be Turkish.
Of Western, and particularly European, attitudes to the battles, he voiced disbelief.
“Don’t they understand that we are the last dam that is holding back the flood of Islamists in Europe,” he asked. “What blindness.”