BEIRUT: Syrian rebels were running low on ammunition Friday but vowed to hit back at government forces trying to consolidate their control over Aleppo, the country’s largest city that has be a deadly battleground for more than two weeks.
The seemingly intractable, 17-month-old conflict in Syria has defied all international attempts to calm the bloodshed. But rebels and activists said Friday they have had enough of diplomacy and appealed to the international community to send weapons.
“The warplanes and helicopters are killing us, they’re up there in the sky 15 hours a day,” said Mohammad al-Hasan, an activist in Aleppo’s main rebel stronghold of Salaheddine.
“It’s warplanes against Kalashnikovs, tanks fighting against rifles,” he said. “I don’t know how long this situation can be sustained.”
But rebel commander Abu Jamil, in Salaheddine said he was preparing for a new attack, after rebels were pushed back by Syrian troops Thursday.
“I have about 60 men positioned strategically at the front line and we are preparing a new attack today [Friday],” he told Reuters.
As Syrian soldiers bombarded rebel positions in Aleppo from the ground and air, diplomats said former Algerian Foreign Affairs Minister and longtime U.N. official Lakhdar Brahimi has emerged as a strong candidate to replace Kofi Annan as peace envoy to Syria.
Annan announced his resignation last week, ending a frustrating six-month effort that failed to achieve even a temporary cease-fire as the country descended into civil war.
Activists say some 20,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
In his first public statement on Syria, Brahimi urged world leaders to overcome their differences on a 17-month-old conflict that is descending deeper into full-scale civil war.
“The U.N. Security Council and regional states must unite to ensure that a political transition can take place as soon as possible,” Brahimi said in a statement published on the website of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders committed to peace and human rights.
The relentless violence triggered a fresh wave of civilians streaming across the border into neighboring Turkey Friday. Turkish officials said more than 1,500 Syrians arrived over the past 24 hours, increasing the number of refugees in Turkey to about 51,500.
The regime has been trying to drive rebels out of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, for more than two weeks. The state news agency claimed Wednesday that President Bashar Assad’s forces had regained control of the Salaheddine neighborhood, the main rebel area in Aleppo. But activists said rebels were still putting up a fight there Friday.
Aleppo holds great symbolic and strategic importance. Some 40 kilometers from the Turkish border, it has been a pillar of regime support during the uprising against the Assad regime.
An opposition victory there would allow easier access for weapons and fighters from Turkey, where many rebels are based.
An Aleppo-based activist said government forces were shelling rebel-controlled areas in the southwestern part of Aleppo and in the northeast. Towns and villages in Aleppo suburbs were “at the mercy” of fighter jets and helicopters strafing the area, he said.
“Soon there will be nothing left to destroy in Aleppo ... The regime is using air power without shame,” he said, asking that his name not be used out of fear for his personal safety.
Protesters across many parts of the country rallied after midday prayers Friday, urging the international community to arm the opposition fighters.
“Give us anti-aircraft guns. Where is your conscience?” read a small poster held by a protester in the village of Kfar Zeita in the central Hama province.
However, there has been deep reluctance to openly arm the fighters, out of fears that it could escalate the violence and because the rebel Free Syrian Army is not a unified group. Many rebel groups operate largely independently of each other.
The U.S. imposed new sanctions on Syria and its allies Friday as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed to Turkey to compare notes on Syria with its NATO partner following a string of dramatic swings in Assad’s push to crush the rebellion.
Clinton is due to fly from the small West African state of Benin to Istanbul, where she will meet Saturday with Turkey’s prime minister and foreign minister and hold talks with Syrians who have recently joined the growing exodus of refugees fleeing the violence.
Washington sees Turkey, one of Damascus’ harshest critics, as the key player both in supporting Syria’s opposition and in planning for what U.S. officials say is the inevitable collapse of the Assad government following the bloodshed.
U.S. officials are particularly interested in Turkey’s analysis of the political forces emerging as Syria spirals into chaos – hoping that together they can puzzle out the complex patchwork of rebel groups jockeying for position.
Clinton and other U.S. officials have in recent weeks cited rebel gains on the battlefield and the defection of senior Syrian military and political figures as signs that Assad’s rule is crumbling.
They have also highlighted rebel claims to control a “corridor” from Aleppo to the Turkish border as a potential future opposition safe haven, which could present the United States and its allies with a policy predicament on whether to defend it against government attack.
U.S. officials have so far ruled out direct military support for Syria’s rebels, who are already believed to be getting weapons from U.S. allies in the Gulf.
But President Barack Obama has signed a secret order authorizing measures to help Assad’s armed opponents, and U.S. officials say the United States is already collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar near the Syrian border to help direct vital military and communications support to rebel fighters.
Britain’s government said Friday it was giving an extra 5 million pounds ($7.8 million) worth of aid – but no weapons – to Syria’s opposition. Foreign Secretary William Hague said the funds would pay for items including satellite phones, power generators and medical kits. Britain has previously given 1.4 million pounds worth of nonlethal support to Syria’s opposition.