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Damascus and Aleppo are both home to elites who have benefited from close ties to Assad’s regime, as well as merchant classes and minority groups who worry their status will suffer if Assad falls.

But for months, rebels have been gaining strength in poorer towns and cities in the Aleppo countryside, gaining footholds near the Turkish border.

Anger has been building inside Aleppo at the government’s deadly crackdown on the uprising and in recent months, huge anti-government demonstrations have broken out, particularly among students at Aleppo University.

In May, Syrian forces stormed student dormitories during an anti-government protest at the university, firing tear gas and bullets in an hours-long siege that killed four students and forced the closure of the state-run school.

An amateur video posted online by activists showed Aleppo residents walking with bags of belongings or packing into cars and driving away.

Another video showed protesters pounding an iron bust of Assad’s late father, Hafez, with rocks in an attempt to break it. The videos could not be independently verified.

Activists and residents reported relative calm in Damascus on Saturday, although sporadic gunfire and explosions could be heard.

Two residents who did not want to be identified for safety reasons said by telephone that the fighting peaked between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. local time.

One of the residents said most shops in the capital were closed Saturday and traffic was light.

Authorities have set up checkpoints at the entrances of Damascus in an effort to separate it from rebellious suburbs, and the resident said many grocery stores and vegetable vendors were unable to get supplies.

Piles of rubbish were starting to pile up in many parts of the city.

“The tension is palpable, people are scared about what might be coming,” the resident said by telephone from the upscale middle class Mazzeh district. “A lot of people are just staying at home.”

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a Damascus-based activist said two people were found dead in the Midan district after regime forces stormed their apartment. The activist, who gave his name as Omar al-Dimashqi, said the pair had been stabbed with knives, but that could not be independently confirmed.

Syrian forces recaptured the battle-scarred neighborhood on Friday and proudly showed reporters the dead bodies of rebel fighters lying in rubble-strewn streets.

The fighting in Damascus has sent thousands of Syrians pouring into neighboring Lebanon and Iraq.

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