Syria’s rebels hold Aleppo neighborhoods

BEIRUT — Syrian tanks and artillery pounded rebel-held neighborhoods in the commercial hub of Aleppo on Sunday in a bid to retake control as President Bashar Assad’s regime accused regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey of trying to destroy the country.

Activists say opposition fighters control large swathes of territory across Syria’s largest city. The government has been struggling for a week to beat back their assault and stem the tide of recent rebel advances in the civil war.

The head of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, called for international help in arming the rebels to face the regime’s heavy weaponry, particularly tanks.

“If the international community cannot act, they should support the opposition with anti-tanks missiles and anti-aircraft rockets,” Abdel Basset Sida told the Gulf News during a stopover in Abu Dhabi. “We seek international supporters to arm our uprising against the regime.”

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have expressed willingness to help fund the rebels and they are believed to be funneling money through Turkey to the opposition, which is using it to purchase arms and equipment.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem railed against interference by the region’s Sunni powers in a rare public criticism of his Middle East neighbors. He accused them of supporting the rebels at the behest of Israel.

“Israel is the mastermind of all in this crisis,” he said during a joint news conference in Tehran with his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi . “They (Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) are fighting in the same front.”

Syria’s Sunni majority forms the backbone of the uprising while the regime is dominated by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Iran is Syria’s only remaining ally in the Middle East, standing by Damascus throughout the 17-month uprising.

Amid fears of a massacre or a bloody final battle in Aleppo, civilians have been fleeing the city in ever greater numbers.

“Life in Aleppo has become unbearable. I’m in my car and I’m leaving right now,” said a Syrian writer as he got ready to drive away. “There’s shelling night and day, every day,” he said over the telephone on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

He painted a dire picture of daily life in the embattled city, torn between the government forces and those of the rebels.

“Bread, gasoline and gas are being sold on the black market at very high prices,” he said. “Many things are in shortage.”

Videos uploaded onto the Internet show deserted neighborhood streets filled with rubble knocked off the multi-story apartment buildings by incoming mortar shells. Shards of broken glass also litter the streets and few windows appear to still be intact.

Since the rebel assault on Aleppo began a week ago, about 192 people have been killed, mostly civilians, according to the activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Some 19,000 people have died since the uprising began, the group says.

The regime strategy for now appears to be to soften the rebel positions with artillery before actually moving into the densely packed streets of the neighborhoods where their tanks be at a disadvantage.

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