ALEPPO — Activists fighting Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces in Aleppo promised a counter-attack yesterday after losing ground under heavy bombardment, and residents fled in cars crammed with belongings during a lull in fighting. The fighters were pushed back from the Salaheddin district on Thursday by troops seeking to re-establish control over Syria’s largest city and its economic hub — a crucial arena in a struggle that the United Nations said would yield no winner.
“I have about 60 men positioned strategically at the front line and we are preparing a new attack today,” said Abu Jamil, a rebel commander, saying sniper fire in Salaheddine had prevented his men from retrieving a comrade’s body for two days. Reuters journalists saw residents streaming out of Aleppo, seizing on a calm spell to pack vehicles with mattresses, fridges and toys. At least two air force planes flew overhead.
Random shooting echoed from inside Salaheddine, a former rebel stronghold that controls access to Aleppo from the south, and an unmanned drone aircraft buzzed directly overhead. Some residents of the shattered neighbourhood slipped back to try to salvage possessions, despite army snipers lurking there. Two civilians were hit by gunfire in nearby streets. One, apparently shot in the buttocks, was dragged off the street by fightersand treated by medics before being taken to a field clinic.
A second man was wounded in the back and arm. Blood soaked through the sleeve of his yellow jacket and his face was contorted in pain as rescuers put him in a vehicle.
In an apparent effort to project an air of normalcy, state television screened footage dated August 10 of a calm Aleppo, including images of its ancient citadel — UN World Heritage site — and cars flowing freely around a traffic circle. It also screened footage dated August 10 of children playing in the sea at Tartous, a town on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
Assad seeks to crush a rebellion against his family’s 42 years in charge of the pivotal Arab state. A member of Syria’s Alawite community, Assad is engaged in an all-consuming fight.
Though sympathetic to the fighters, neither these countries nor Western powers have intervened militarily. Russia and China have blocked any UN Security Council action on Syria that would have opened the way to global sanctions against Damascus.
The United States is preparing to announce further sanctions targeting Syrian and other entities “supporting the efforts of the Syrian government to oppress its own people”, a senior US official told reporters travelling with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Ghana yesterday.
The official said the new measures, which were expected to target Assad’s government as well as possibly Iranian entities that the United States accuse of assisting him, would be announced in Washington later yesterday.
Iran, Syria’s closest foreign ally, called for “serious and inclusive” talks between the government and opposition at a meeting of states sympathetic to Assad in Tehran on Thursday.
“There will be no winner in Syria,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a message to the conference. “Now, we face the grim possibility of long-term civil war destroying Syria’s rich tapestry of interwoven communities.”
Diplomats said veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi could be named next week to replace the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, who quit in frustration at the deadlock among veto-wielding powers at the United Nations.
Britain said yesterday it would increase non-lethal aid to Syria’s opposition, including the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote in the Times newspaper that he had also instructed a senior diplomat to give Assad’s foes “a tough message that they must observe human rights standards, whatever horrors are perpetrated by the government”.
Hague said the extra money for non-lethal assistance totalled 5 million pounds ($7.8 million) and was separate from Britain’s existing humanitarian programmes in Syria.
“This is not taking sides in a civil war,” Hague wrote of the contacts with the opposition.
“The risk of total disorder and a power vacuum is so great that we must build relationships now with those who may govern Syria in the future.”
Assad’s offensive to reassert control over Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub, follows a successful drive to expel fightersfrom parts of Damascus they had seized after a bomb blast in the capital killed four of his senior aides on July 18.
His grip on the country has been eroded and his authority was further shaken by his prime minister’s defection last week.
Assad on Thursday appointed Wael al Halki to replace Riyad Hijab who had spent only two months in the job before making a dramatic escape across the border to Jordan on Wednesday.
But the Syrian leader appears determined to fight on, whatever the cost in human lives and destruction.
Assad’s forces have been using heavy artillery and air power to subdue rebel-held areas. Reuters journalists saw a fighter jet diving and firing rockets on Thursday over Tel Rifaat, 35 km north of Aleppo, causing villagers to flee in panic. But large areas of Syria have fallen out of Assad’s control.
Aleppo, an ancient city of 2.5 million people, has been battered by government artillery for days. An insurgent commander said on Thursday that 250 people had been killed in recent days in the Salaheddine district.
But as yet, there has been no sign of the infantry advance required for Assad to take full control of the city.
Rebel commander Abu Furat al Garabolsy said one reason could be faltering morale among Assad’s troops, but said the military might also be delaying a full-scale ground assault to tire out fighterswith bombardment and deplete their ammunition.
Growing numbers of civilians are fleeing the fighting in Aleppo and elsewhere.
Nearly 150,000 Syrian refugees have been registered in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq since the conflict began 17 months ago, the United Nations said yesterday.
The total includes 50,227 recorded in Turkey, where more than 6,000 Syrians arrived last week alone, it said.
“There certainly in the past week has been a sharp increase in the numbers arriving in Turkey, and there many of the people are coming from Aleppo and surrounding villages,” said Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UNHCR refugee agency. — Reuters