Aleppo is Syria’s largest city and the nation’s commercial hub. Losing it to the opposition would be almost as devastating as losing Damascus.
When a couple of disorganized units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) moved in and occupied two key districts in Aleppo, the Syrian army counterattacked.
Activists in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city and a northern commercial hub, said hundreds of families were fleeing residential districts after the military swept into the Saladin district, which had been in rebel hands for two days.
Fighting was also reported in the densely-populated, poor neighborhood of al-Sakhour.
“The sound of bombardment has been non-stop since last night. For the first time we feel Aleppo has turned into a battle zone,” a housewife said by phone from the city.
An escalation in the fighting in Aleppo would prove another challenge to Assad, still reeling from the assassination of four of his top security officials and a six-day attack on the capital which rebels have named “Damascus Volcano”.
The president has not spoken in public since the killings, and failed to attend funeral ceremonies for his brother-in-law and two other slain officials on Friday.
The clashes in Aleppo came as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was sending his peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous and top military adviser Gen. Babacar Gaye to Syria to assess the situation.
Meanwhile, in Damascus, the Syrian army got serious about dislodging rebels who briefly threatened the capital yesterday:
In Damascus, Assad’s forces hit back overnight. Helicopters and tanks aimed rockets, machineguns and mortars at pockets of lightly armed rebel fighters who moved through the streets on foot, attacking security installations and roadblocks.
Residents who toured the city on Saturday said it was relatively quiet, though gunfire and explosions could still be heard intermittently in some areas.
Most shops were closed and there was only light traffic – although more than in recent days. Some police checkpoints, which had been abandoned earlier in the week, were manned again.
Most petrol stations were closed, having run out of fuel, and the few that were open had huge lines of cars waiting to fill up. Residents also reported long queues at bakeries and said vegetable prices had doubled.
Damascus appears safe — for the moment. But the battles in Syria’s two largest cities are giving the rebels some badly needed confidence — and credibility. The suicide bomb blast that killed President Assad’s defense minister, spy chief, and his most trusted aide — his brother in law Assef Shawkat — has the Syrian regime off balance, although talk of Assad’s downfall is extremely premature. The FSA is taking advantage of the opening afforded them by the bombing and is growing in stature, both in the eyes of the international community and their supporters in Syria.