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Terrorism & Security

As Syrian government gains ground in Aleppo, it loses its people (+video)

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's warnings that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad risks losing his country because of his brutal tactics appear to be panning out.

By / July 30, 2012

Residents look at damaged buildings at Marat al-Numan near the northern province of Idlib, Syria, July 27.

Shaam News Network/REUTERS

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Middle East Editor

Ariel Zirulnick is the Monitor's Middle East editor, overseeing regional coverage both for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine. She is also a contributor to the international desk's terrorism and security blog. 

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New fighting has been reported in the Syrian city of Aleppo, where government forces are using heavy weapons to attack rebel positions. CBS News' Clarissa Ward reports.

Reports out of Aleppo indicate that Syrian government troops launching an assault on the city have so far been unable to retake rebel-held neighborhoods there, despite the use of heavy weapons such as tanks and helicopter gunships.

Yesterday Syrian state media reported government victories in two Aleppo neighborhoods, but activists denied the reports, telling The Associated Press that there has been only "fierce shelling" and some fighting on the ground.

But the regime remains much better armed than the rebels. The leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition group, requested countries ignore United Nations Security Council opposition and provide heavy weapons that would allow the rebels to actually fight back against the regime's superior weaponry, Reuters reports.

"The rebels are fighting with primitive weapons... We want weapons that we can stop tanks and planes with," SNC chief Abdelbasset Seida said in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates. "Our friends and allies will bear responsibility for what is happening in Aleppo if they do not move soon."

The brutality of the regime's offensive to retake Aleppo will be the beginning of the end of President Bashar al-Assad's rule, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said yesterday, according to Reuters.

"If they continue this kind of tragic attack on their own people in Aleppo, I think it ultimately will be a nail in Assad's own coffin," Mr. Panetta told reporters.

"What Assad has been doing to his own people and what he continues to do to his own people makes clear that his regime is coming to an end. It's lost all legitimacy," he said, adding, "It's no longer a question of whether he's coming to an end, it's when."

Valerie Amos of the UN humanitarian affairs agency said yesterday that 200,000 people have fled Aleppo and nearby areas in just the past two days, and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby voiced concerns that war crimes are being committed in the city, CNN reports. 

Comments from residents in Damascus back up Panetta's claim. The government has reasserted control over the Syrian capital, but the success has come with a cost from the public, Reuters reports.

"To begin with I was with the regime, for sure," said Ahmed, from one of the southern suburbs where the Army, backed by helicopters and tanks, launched its counteroffensive. "But now, no, the regime must go. Take what they want with them, but they must go."

The Christian Science Monitor's Scott Peterson heard similar accounts of turning points when in Aleppo last week.

Abu Omar, for example, says he left his special forces unit while deployed to a rebel-held area of northwest Syria.

“They gave us orders to kill the people who don’t have a gun, but who just went out of their homes and shouted ‘freedom,’” says Abu Omar. “There were girls and little boys killed. I was just shooting in the sky. If we don’t shoot, they take us to jail, or kill us there.”

Likewise, Abu Hamza left the Syrian police after being ordered to shoot people as they left Friday prayers in the coastal town of Latakia after they began shouting “God is great.”

“My moral sense wouldn’t let me do it,” Abu Hamza recalls. He still carries his police ID card. “My father and brother go to mosque and shout in Aleppo every Friday. How could I shoot such people in Latakia? These people are family.”

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