ALEPPO/BEIRUT: Aleppo was shaken Sunday by the heaviest fighting of an almost three-month offensive against rebels in Syria’s second city, residents said, as the insurgents lost ground in the capital Damascus.
Another car bomb also rocked police headquarters in the capital Sunday, killing one policeman, according to state media and Syrian mortar fire into a Turkish border village prompted retaliatory fire for the fifth consecutive day.
As fighting escalated on the ground, on the political front, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu suggested that Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa could replace President Bashar Assad lead an interim Cabinet, describing Sharaa as “a man of reason.”
An AFP correspondent in Aleppo said warplanes were overflying the rebel-held Bab al-Hadid and Shaar neighborhoods, where witnesses said fierce fighting had erupted.
“This is the worst fighting we’ve seen here since the beginning of the Aleppo war,” a Bab al-Hadid resident in his mid-20s told AFP.
“From early morning ... there has been shelling on the area and clashes between the rebels in Bab al-Hadid and the army at the beginning of Arkoub district,” which is located near the Hanano barracks.
“It looks like the army is trying to push the rebels as far as it can from the Hanano [military] barracks,” the resident said, asking not to be identified.
The military in July launched what it vowed would be the “mother of all battles” against rebels who had taken up positions inside Syria’s commercial capital.
Government forces have lost control of several border crossings and are battling to fully retake the city, but the opposition has managed to keep regime troops at bay in a number of neighborhoods while securing a large swathe of territory along the Turkish border.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that regime forces Sunday pounded the town of Tal-Abyad in the northern province of Raqqa, which sits on the border with Turkey and is held by the rebels.
Turkey shelled Friday a Syrian military position south of Tal-Abyad, as part of bombardments of Syrian army positions since Wednesday’s killing of five civilians by a shell that smashed into a Turkish town of Akcakale.
The incident prompted Turkey’s parliament to give the green light to use military force against Syria in response and sparked days of retaliatory fire from Turkish troops on Syrian army positions.
Syrian mortar fire again struck Akcakale Sunday, without causing casualties, Turkey’s NTV news channel reported, prompting immediate artillery retaliation from Turkey.
Rebels cemented Saturday their control of Syria’s northern frontier with Turkey after seizing the town of Khirbat al-Joz in the northwest province of Idlib after a pitched battle with regime troops, the Observatory said. “The clashes at Khirbat al-Joz ... ended when fighters of the rebel brigades took control of the area.”
“The fighting lasted more than 12 hours and resulted in at least 40 dead among the regular forces, including five officers, and nine [rebel] fighters,” it added.
Nearly 80 percent of towns and villages along the Turkish border are outside the control of Damascus, according to the Observatory. AFP correspondents have passed through territory in the Idlib and Aleppo provinces of northern Syria that have fallen outside government control, with residents running their own affairs.
But as rebels made ground in Aleppo, Syrian state television said government forces had pushed rebels out of two of their strongholds in Damascus province, Qudsaya and Hameh, where a watchdog said the bodies of 10 men were found.
“Hameh and Qudsaya in Damascus province have been cleansed from the armed terrorists,” the television said, using the regime’s blanket term for the rebels.
The Observatory confirmed that the regime had taken control of Hameh and said the bodies of 10 men, at least one of them a rebel fighter, were found in the town.
Activists with the Syrian Revolution General Commission reported residents had returned to Hameh to find the neighborhood almost totally destroyed.
Rebels in Damascus attempted a surge on the capital following a bomb attack on July 18 that killed members of Assad’s crisis cell, including his brother-in-law, the defense minister and a general.
But since then, regime forces have pushed them to the outskirts of the city.
A renewed spate of bombings in the city has suggested the rebels are preparing a new offensive in the city. Sunday’s car bombing, which Syrian state media said exploded in the car park of the police headquarters in the early evening, killing one policeman, was the second bomb attack in two weeks.
Like the blast on the military headquarters in central Umayyad Square on Sept. 26, when rebels appeared to try to storm the building after the blast, witnesses said heavy gunfire followed the explosion. Free Syrian Army rebels claimed responsibility for the first attack, but there was no immediate claim of responsibility for Sunday’s explosion.
With border tensions stoking fears that Syria’s civil war would escalate into a regional conflagration drawing in NATO member Turkey, Davutoglu urged that Sharaa take the helm in Syria.
In an interview with Turkish state television TRT Saturday, Davutoglu said that Sharaa was a figure “whose hands are not contaminated in blood” and therefore acceptable to Syrian opposition groups. It was not clear whether the Turkish stance was coordinated with other allies, but the candid remarks by Davutoglu suggested some consensus might be emerging over a future role for him.
Sharaa, 73, a close associate and longtime loyalist to the Assad family, has been a controversial figure since the start of the uprising.
He appeared in public in late August for the first time in weeks, ending repeated rumors that he had defected.
“Nobody knows the [Syrian] system better than he,” Davutoglu said.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey does not want war, but warned Syria not to test its resolve.
“You have to be ready at every moment to go to war if it is necessary. If you are not ready for this, you are not a state,” Erdogan said in Istanbul Sunday.
“What did our forefathers say? ‘If you want peace prepare for war’ ... If you suffer an outrage, you will do what is necessary. Look, we are retaliating in kind,” he said. “If you strike, you will see the retaliation immediately.”