ALEPPO: The government of Bashar Assad declared victory Sunday in a hard-fought battle for Syria’s capital Damascus, and pounded rebels who control parts of its largest city Aleppo.
Assad’s forces have struggled as never before to maintain their grip on the country over the past two weeks after a major rebel advance into the two largest cities and an explosion that killed four top security officials.
Government forces have succeeded in reimposing their grip on the capital after a punishing battle, but rebels are still in control of sections of Aleppo, clashing with reinforced army troops for several days.
“Today I tell you, Syria is stronger ... In less than a week they were defeated [in Damascus] and the battle failed,” Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said on a visit to Iran, Assad’s main ally in a region where other neighbors have forsaken him.
“So they moved on to Aleppo and I assure you, their plots will fail.”
Rebel fighters, patrolling opposition districts in flat-bed trucks flying green-white-and-black “independence” flags, said they were holding off Assad’s forces in the southwestern Aleppo district of Salaheddine, where clashes have gone on for days.
Opposition activists also reported fighting in other rebel-held districts of Aleppo, in what could herald the start of a decisive phase in the battle for Syria’s commercial hub, after the army sent tank columns and troop reinforcements last week.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said in a statement that 200,000 people have fled from Aleppo in two days and an unknown number of them were still trapped in the city.
Amos said in New York that she was “extremely concerned by the impact of shelling and use of tanks and other heavy weapons” on civilians in Aleppo, Damascus and other locations.
Helicopter gunships hovered over Aleppo shortly after dawn and the thud of artillery boomed across neighborhoods. Syrian state television said soldiers were repelling “terrorists” in Salaheddine and had captured several of their leaders.
Some rebel-held areas visited by Reuters were empty of residents. Fighters were basing themselves in houses – some clearly abandoned in a hurry, with food still in the fridges.
A burnt-out tank lay in the street, while nearby another one had been captured intact, covered in tarpaulin and left in a car park, perhaps for the rebels themselves to use against any ground assault by Assad’s forces.
In a largely empty street, flanked by closed shops and run-down buildings, women clad in long black abayas walked with children next to walls daubed with rebel graffiti – “Freedom,” “Free Syrian Army” and “Down with Bashar.” Rubbish lay uncollected and in one street families were packing vans full of mattresses in apparent preparation to flee.
The leader of Syria’s main political opposition group, the Syrian National Council, called for foreign allies to provide heavy weapons to fight Assad’s “killing machine.”
“The rebels are fighting with primitive weapons ... We want weapons that we can stop tanks and planes with. This is what we want,” SNC chief Abdelbasset Seida said in Abu Dhabi.
He urged foreign allies to circumvent the divided U.N. Security Council and intervene to help topple Assad.
“Our friends and allies will bear responsibility for what is happening in Aleppo if they do not move soon,” he said, adding that talks would start on forming a transitional government.
Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood meanwhile denounced Assad and his allies, Iran and Russia, and the international community’s for its “silence” and failure to protect civilians Sunday.
In a statement, the influential Islamist movement said Assad was “legally and morally responsible for the death of every victim in Syria.”
The Brotherhood said that both Iran and Russia – the powerful allies of the embattled Assad regime – were “drowning in the blood of the Syrian people.”
“Neither the Russians nor the Iranians will relieve [Assad] of responsibility for his crimes,” it added.
Arab League head Nabil Elaraby also said the battle in Aleppo amounted to “war crimes,” and perpetrators would eventually be punished, Egypt’s MENA state news agency reported.
The Arab League has suspended Syria and lined up with the West and Turkey against Assad. Assad’s government blames Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for the revolt.
Reuters reported Friday that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had set up a base in southeastern Turkey to aid the rebel Free Syrian Army. Asked about the base, a Saudi Foreign Ministry spokesman declined Sunday to comment directly but said Riyadh provided financial and humanitarian aid to the Syrian people.
Hinting at more direct support for the rebels, he said countries should enable Syrians “to protect themselves at the very least, if the international community is not able to do so.”
Assad’s ruling structure draws strongly on his Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while his opposition is drawn largely from the Sunni Muslim majority, backed by Sunni leaders who rule nearly all other Arab states.
That has raised fears that the 16-month-old conflict could spread across the wider Middle East, where a sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites has been at the root of violence in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere.
Shiite Iran demonstrated its firm support for Assad by hosting his foreign minister. At a joint news conference with Moallem, Iran’s own Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi rebuked the West and Arab states for holding the “illusion” that Assad could be easily replaced from power in a managed transition.
In Damascus, where Assad’s forces pushed back a rebel offensive following a deadly bomb attack on his inner circle, many residents have fled fighting in the outskirts for relative safety in the heart of the capital.
Even the center has been shattered by the violence. Shops open only between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., food prices have soared and no one dares walk outside after dusk, even in Ramadan when streets are packed late into the night.
“To begin with I was with the regime, for sure,” said Ahmad, from one of the southern suburbs where the army, backed by helicopter and tanks, launched its fierce counter offensive. “But now, no, the regime must go. Take what they want with them, but they must go.”
The battle for Aleppo, a city of 2.5 million people, is a decisive test of the government’s ability to retake its two main cities. It has committed huge military resources to the battle there after losing control of outlying rural areas and some border crossings with Turkey and Iraq.
Free Syrian Army fighters were in evidence on the approaches to Aleppo from the north, where many villagers were shopping or tending their fields.
One man in his 40s, carrying his family on a motorcycle, said he was fleeing the fighting in the city.
“We are living in a war zone,” he told Reuters. “I and my relatives are just going back and forth, trying to stay away from the fighting. We left Aleppo when we saw smoke and helicopters firing.”
The British-based Observatory, which compiles reports from anti-government activists, said 26 people were killed in Aleppo Saturday and 190 across Syria. It reported fighting in Deraa, the cradle of the revolution, Homs, the scene of some of the bloodiest combat, and Hama.
There was no way to verify its figures.