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Aleppo short on weapons, medical supplies as Syria's next big battle looms

The expected Syrian government offensive hasn't begun in earnest, but Aleppo's rebel-held neighborhoods are being pounded by shelling and gunfire and clinics are filling up with wounded.

By Staff writer / July 27, 2012

Rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army control districts of Aleppo, Syria, on July 27. Aleppo has become a critical battleground in the 16-month uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which has claimed an estimated 17,000 lives.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

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Aleppo, Syria

Shouting men rushed the wounded rebel fighter, prone on a stretcher, into a makeshift emergency ward tonight at dusk after shrapnel from a Syrian government mortar shell tore through his leg. 

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“You see?” asked Abu Hassan, another rebel from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). “Tell your country to do something, anything!”

Shortly afterwards, another man – a plumber shot in the leg by a Syrian government sniper – was brought in. 

Tensions are high in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, where rebel commanders are expecting at any moment a powerful government offensive to reverse the past week's rebel gains, as happened in Damascus, where regime forces reclaimed the capital from the rebels with firepower and lethal street battles.

The battle for control of Syria’s northern economic hub and largest city will likely shape the fate of the 17-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which has so far consumed 17,000 lives, according to some of the highest estimates. Losing Aleppo to the rebels would demonstrate severe government weakness.

Eighty Syrian government tanks are believed to have arrived at the Aleppo battlefront on the western flanks of the city. Today helicopters circling overhead fired repeated bursts into rebel-held districts for most of the day, causing six deaths. Government snipers claimed two more lives today, according to rebels in Aleppo. 

“The FSA is ready – we have many explosives and roadside bombs,” says Abu Mhio, an FSA officer in one Aleppo district. Tanks already deployed in Aleppo have not been used, he says – only artillery, from a distance – but their use is "only a matter of time, we don't know when." 

“The regime can’t enter here. The FSA is very strong and everyone supports the FSA,” says Abu Mhio about rebel-held districts east and west/southwest of the city center. “People open their houses to us.”

It is not possible to verify rebel claims of broad support in Aleppo. Yet one woman cradling a baby on her shoulder stepped into an FSA office today, specifically to ask for an FSA flag – to use as a backdrop for a portrait of the child, she said, and to hang at home.

Today and all week, families raced to fill trucks with belongings, hoisting refrigerators, televisions and anything that would fit before fleeing to safer villages in northern Syria or across the border to Turkey. Looks of fear marked their faces as they continually scanned the sky to check the location of the shooting helicopters. 

Aleppo has been a challenge for rebel forces. It was late to join the uprising, has long supported the regime, and its neighborhoods are split between opposition and government supporters. But the expected showdown between rebel and regime forces has also brought a fresh influx of rebels into the city. 

“Every day some more fighters come from the villages… we just want to defend these places [in Aleppo], so let God bless us,” says a fighter and former government special forces soldier, who asked to be called Abu Omar. “The regime does a lot of shelling at night to make people afraid, to destroy buildings and kill more people – to make people curse the FSA... they say: ‘You come here, and now the bombs come’ – so we try to protect people. But we need weapons, more weapons, from any country.”

Another fighter, Abu Hamza, brandishes his AK-47 assault rifle to make the point: “This gun costs $2,000, and every bullet is $2,” he says. “It’s so expensive.”

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