BEIRUT — Dozens of government tanks converged on Syria’s largest city Wednesday as President Bashar Assad marshalled his forces to stamp out a five-day rebel fight to wrest Aleppo from the regime’s grasp.
As the fighting raged in Aleppo, Turkey said that it had sealed its border to trade with Syria, effectively ending a relationship once worth $3 billion, but would keep the frontier open to civilians fleeing the violence or in search of supplies. Two more Syrian diplomats, meanwhile, defected in the latest sign of cracks in the upper echelons of the Assad regime.
Fierce streets battles have raged in Aleppo since Saturday as rebels have slowly pushed through friendly neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city towards its ancient centre. Although the regime has brought in its superior firepower, including attack helicopters and fighter jets, its forces have yet to drive out the rebels without additional reinforcements.
“We are expecting a big attack on Aleppo,” local activist Mohammed Saeed said via Skype, explaining that some 80 tanks had been spotted in the countryside being hauled by flatbed trucks towards the city. “People are worried they might be hit by random shelling and are fleeing.”
A similar rebel assault in Damascus last week took days for the government to control, and only then with the help of artillery bombardments and helicopters.
Northern Syria, especially the province of Idlib near Aleppo, has seen some of the heaviest and steadiest fighting between government forces and the rebels, and large swathes of the countryside are under opposition control.
Yet while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed confidence Tuesday in the rebel advances and predicted the eventual establishment of safe havens, the opposition fighters have yet to hold any territory against a concerted regime assault.
This is in stark contrast to Libya’s rebels, who last year were able to create a liberated area in the east of their country that proved key to their successful battle to oust longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. However, the Syrian rebels’ hold over territory is tenuous. They do not control any major urban areas, and are not backed by NATO’s war planes the way the Libyans were.
While Syrian government forces are stretched thin by fighting taking place across the country in cities like Homs and Hama in central Syria, Deir el-Zour in the west, Daraa in the south and Idlib province in the north, they can defeat any single rebel assault by concentrating their forces, as they now appear to be doing with Aleppo since pacifying Damascus.
Yet even as Syria’s powerful 300,000-man-strong military holds fast in the battle against the rebels, there are signs of cracks among the elites of the regime with a string of recent high profile defections.
Lamia al-Hariri, Damascus’ envoy to Cyprus and her husband Abdel Latif Dabbagh, the former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates left their posts, following in the footsteps of the ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, who defected two weeks earlier.
SNC member Shadi al-Khesh in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi said Wednesday that other Syrian diplomats are expected to quit their posts soon, though he was unable to provide specifics.
“I think you will see many Syrian diplomats defect,” he said.
Late Tuesday, a top military commander and close friend of Assad confirmed his defection. Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, son of a former defence minister, said in a video broadcast on Al-Arabiya TV that Syrians must work together to build a new country. It was his first public appearance since he left Syria earlier this month.
In another blow to the regime, Turkey sealed its border with Syria to trade, though it will remain open for Syrians fleeing or seeking supplies, Turkey’s economy minister said.
Zafer Caglayan added that the deteriorating security was behind the closure of a border through which Turkey once exported food and construction materials to the entire Middle East, though the volume of traffic had dropped 87 per cent since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.
“We have serious concerns over the safety of Turkish trucks regarding their entry and return from Syria,” he said, adding that three border crossings were in rebel hands. Syrians seeking refuge or to resupply would still be allowed in.
A Syrian ally before the anti-Assad uprising began 16 months ago, Ankara has since turned into a harsh critic the regime in Damascus has pursued its bloody crackdown on the revolt. Now, Turkish territory along the of the countries’ 911-kilometre (566-mile) border is used as a staging ground for rebel fighters as well as a haven for thousands of refugees fleeing violence that activists say has killed 19,000 people so far.
Even Moscow, Syria’s closest international ally, seemed to be running out of patience with the Assad regime when it warned Damascus late Tuesday against any use of chemical weapons. The Kremlin statement reminding Syria of its international obligations followed the Assad regime’s announcement earlier this week that it has chemical weapons and would use them in case of foreign aggression.
Russia’s warning reflected a degree of irritation with Assad and followed earlier Russian rebukes over the heavy-handed use of force and slow pace of reforms.
In remarks Wednesday, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was back in his old role of Syria’s defender, criticizing new European efforts to enforce an arms embargo as “unilateral sanctions” and a “blockade.”
In Damascus, the new commander for the 300-member UN observer force, Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye, and the U.N. official for peacekeeping operations, Herve Ladsous, were assessing the prospects for a U.N. peace plan that has been widely ignored by both sides.
Half of the 300-member U.N. observer force, meant to monitor the non-existent ceasefire, has left the country.
“I think diplomats have to be optimistic and that’s no joke, I think we have to hope,” Ladsous told reporters. “We have to hope that the whole process gains traction, that the vicious circle of violence can cease, and that some political solution and first and foremost some political dialogue can get started.”