Syrian President Bashar Assad sent helicopters to bomb rebel
positions in Damascus and warplanes and thousands of troops to strafe
Aleppo in his brutal war to stay in power.
Recent days have seen Syria´s 16-month-old uprising transformed from
an insurgency in remote provinces into a battle for control of the
two main cities, Aleppo and the slightly smaller capital, Damascus,
where fighting exploded last week.
Assad´s forces appear to have beaten rebels back from neighborhoods
in the capital and are turning towards Aleppo, a commercial hub in
Syrian forces fired artillery and rocket barrages early on Wednesday
at the northern Damascus suburb of al-Tel in an attempt to seize the
area from rebels, causing mass panic and forcing hundreds of families
to flee the area, residents and opposition activists said.
"Military helicopters are flying now over the town. People were
awakened by the sound of explosions and are running away," Rafe Alam,
one of the activists, said by phone from a hill overlooking Tel, a
suburb of approximately 100,000 people. "Electricity and telephones
have been cut off."
Opposition activists said thousands of troops had withdrawn with
their tanks and armored vehicles from a strategic area near the
Turkish border and were headed towards Aleppo. Rebels attacked the
rear of the troops withdrawing from the region and were battling
government forces by the gates of the historic old city, while
government helicopters fired missiles from overhead.
"I heard at least 20 rockets fired, I think from helicopters, and
also a lot of machinegun fire," a resident near one of the areas
being shelled, who asked to be identified only by his first name
Omar, said by telephone.
"Almost everyone has fled in panic, even my family. I have stayed to
try to stop the looters; we hear they often come after an area is
Residents said fixed-wing jets had also flown over the city, followed
by loud noises, although there were contradictory reports as to
whether they had fired.
The civil war took a dramatic change last week when a bomb explosion
wiped out much of the top echelon of Assad´s military command
structure and shattered the reputation for invulnerability that his
family has held since his father seized power in a 1970 coup.
Assad has been able to continue his brutal suppression of the 16-
month-old rebellion by virtue of the international community’s fear
of intervening, despite the worsening humanitarian disaster. More
than 16,000 civilians and opposition fighters have been killed, and
hundreds of thousands others have been wounded or left homeless.
Western jawboning has had virtually no effect on Assad, but behind-
the-scenes arming of Syrian rebels has enabled them to strike back at
the Syrian army, despite its overpowering arsenal.
Elsewhere in the country, activists said government troops and pro-
Assad militia known as shabbiha had attacked a mosque in a village
northwest of the city of Hama.