BEIRUT — Dozens of government tanks converged on Syria’s largest city Wednesday as President Bashar Assad marshaled 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 neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city towards its ancient center. 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 defense 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.