Battle for Aleppo enters third week as Syrian rebels hold on

Syrian rebel forces are believed to be far outgunned by the Army, but they've so far held off regime efforts to overrun the city.

By , Staff writer

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    A Free Syrian Army fighter holds his rocket-propelled grenade launcher during a fight with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in downtown Aleppo August 1.
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Syrian rebels gained ground today near Aleppo when they turned a captured tank against a Syrian Army airbase. As fighting nears the end of its second week in Syria’s largest city, this increase in rebel artillery could raise morale for a group that is believed to be far outgunned by military forces.

“We hit the airport using a tank that we captured from the Assad army. We attacked the airport a few times but we have decided to retreat at this time," Abu Ali, a rebel fighter, told Reuters.

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The United Nations observer mission in Syria says it is concerned about escalating violence in Aleppo, citing the use of jets by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the addition of heavier weaponry to the rebels’ cache. Earlier this week NBC News reported that the Free Syrian Army rebel forces acquired nearly 25 surface-to-air missiles via Turkey. 

“The last 72 hours saw a significant increase in the level of violence,” said Sausan Ghosheh, UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) spokesman in Damascus

Reuters reports that the rebels say they have taken control of three police stations this week as they try to consolidate their hold on key areas of Aleppo. They have been met by heavily armed government forces who are working to drive the rebels out of the city. Yesterday a statement by President Assad said the battle for Aleppo will determine the “destiny of our Homeland.”

Cell phone service was reportedly cut off yesterday evening, prompting speculation that the military is planning to ratchet up its offensive. But it could also be an effort to hinder one of the rebels' less traditional strategies for victory: winning the media war.

The Monitor’s Scott Peterson was in Aleppo earlier in the week, where he observed the important role mobile phones and cameras are playing in the Syrian conflict.

This fight has been defined in Syria by endless images shot by mobile phone and volunteer videographers who know the importance of winning the media war.

Every fighter seems to have at least one mobile phone, used to speak with families, Skype girlfriends, and even advise Syrian soldiers how to defect to the opposition. Some note the difference a generation can make to the fate of their challenge against the government – and providing video evidence of atrocities and war crimes that are corroding the legitimacy of the regime.

Civilians are increasingly caught in the middle of the fighting, Ms. Ghosheh of the UN observer mission said. Nearly 200,000 people are believed to have fled Aleppo since fighting began July 20. According to the UN, 3 million Syrians are in need of food aid, and half of them will need “urgent and immediate” assistance in the next three to six months.

Spikes in violence lead to spikes in refugees, said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UN and partner organizations have increased their calls for international humanitarian aid as the conflict has fallen deeper into civil war, but they have only been able to raise $64 million in international support – 33 percent of their target goal, according to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

And while most attention is on Aleppo, where the largest battle is raging, violence continues elsewhere. Government troops swept through a Damascus suburb yesterday, reportedly targeting unarmed civilians.  

According to Reuters:

"When the streets were clear we found the bodies of at least 35 men," a resident, who gave his name as Fares, said by phone from Jdeidet Artouz, southwest of Damascus.

"Almost all of them were executed with bullets to their face, head and neck in homes, gardens and basements."

Syrian state television said "dozens of terrorists and mercenaries surrendered or were killed" when the army raided Jdeidet Artouz and its surrounding farmlands.

Tomorrow, the fighting in Aleppo will enter its third week, and some are saying now is the time to intervene. The Wall Street Journal writes in an editorial that Assad seems unlikely to fall from power anytime soon and is trying to win at any cost. Now is the time to do more than wait, WSJ writes:

All the more reason, then, for the US to intervene now, when it might be able to do so decisively and at relatively low risk. Boots on the ground are not necessary. Merely stationing an aircraft carrier 50 miles off the coast of Syria and notifying the Assad regime that it will clear the skies over Aleppo of Syrian planes and helicopters would be a warning the regime's pilots would prefer not to test.

If that seems excessively interventionist, consider the alternatives. One is that Assad could win the battle of Aleppo… That would present the U.S. with the unpleasant choice of either accepting Assad remaining in power or intervening more directly to help the beleaguered opposition.

A second alternative is a drawn-out battle for Aleppo that would, almost inevitably, turn into a full-scale humanitarian disaster…. Then there's the possibility that the fighting in Aleppo could have an inconclusive result, leading to a drawn out civil war. That is the scenario U.S. planners now seem to anticipate. But that only increases the potential for greater regional instability.

But there are others who say the moment has passed, and that it’s too late to intervene in Syria. Foreign Policy’s Aaron David Miller writes:

Don't believe any of it. The time for guilting the United States into expensive and ill-thought-out military interventions has passed. Indeed, the reasons to intervene in Syria – the hope of defusing a bloody religious and political conflict and dealing the Iranian mullahs a mortal blow – are just not compelling enough to offset the risks and the unknowns.

The reality is that Syria is in the middle of a complex internal struggle with a divided opposition, regional players with diverse agendas, and competing great powers. There's no single force on the ground – or constellation of outside powers – that can impose order. For the United States to enter the fray as a quasi-combatant would make matters more complicated, not less. Sure, US President Barack Obama could take down the Assads by force – but he would do an enormous amount of damage in the process and end up being forced to rebuild the country. Remember the Pottery Barn rule ["you break it, you buy it]? That's the last thing America needs.

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