In Aleppo, rebels brace for full force of Syria's Assad regime

With Syrian Army forces withdrawing from locations across the country and heading toward Aleppo, rebels there are preparing for a fierce battle for the strategic city that few expect them to win.

In this Tuesday, July 24, photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers are seen at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles north of Aleppo, Syria.

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Thousands of residents are leaving the northern Syrian city of Aleppo as fears of a major battle there grow. Until this week, the commercial capital remained largely immune to the violence engulfing the rest of the country, but is now facing its sixth day of fighting in several neighborhoods. Rebel fighters are preparing for a regime offensive, stockpiling medical supplies and weapons as Syrian Army forces focus their efforts on what has been considered a stronghold of support for President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Assad’s forces have stepped up their use of firepower, with reports of helicopters and fighter jets attacking opposition targets on the ground in the city of 3 million, according to The Associated Press.  This follows reports that the government dispatched reinforcement troops, as well as tanks, toward Aleppo yesterday from Idlib Province, near the Turkish border.

"Regime forces have been randomly shelling neighborhoods and the civilians are terrified," local activist Mohammed Saeed told AP.

In the past week, Syria's civil war has roiled the country's two biggest cities, Aleppo and Damascus. Damascus saw increased fighting today as well, with explosions reported in several neighborhoods, according to opposition groups.

As civilians flee, foreign fighters are reportedly entering the region to lend their support to the rebels' fight, according to CNN. Correspondent Ivan Watson and his crew met a Libyan fighter dressed in full camouflage and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle who said others would be joining him. Mr. Watson said that earlier this week the crew met at least one fighter from Turkey, as well as others they believed came from North Africa. The support may be helpful as fighting rages on in Syria for the 17th month, but some rebels fear an Islamist political agenda could usurp their fight.

“The foreign fighters, some of them are clearly drawn because they see this as … a jihad. So this is a magnet for jihadists who see this as a fight for Sunni Muslims,” Watson reported on CNN International’s “Amanpour” [last] night. “And that’s definitely cause for concern among some Syrian revolutionaries I know … who do not want an Islamist political agenda to be mixed in with their revolution.”A majority of Syrians are Sunnis, and Sunnis make up a bulk of the opposition to Syria’s regime, which is dominated by minority Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam. 

Rebel fighters are believed to hold about half of the city under their control, French reporter Adrien Jaulmes, who was traveling with rebels in Aleppo yesterday, told the BBC. Activists say the rebels are not expected to be able to hold Aleppo if faced with a full government assault, as has been the case in Damascus.

On the international stage, there is new talk of political transition in Syria after Arab countries announced plans yesterday to go to the United Nations General Assembly to seek approval of a resolution calling for a political transition and democratic government in Syria. This follows months of failed attempts by the UN Security Council to agree on how to halt the escalating conflict and worrying disclosures about the Assad regime's chemical and biological weapon stockpiles.

A resolution by the General Assembly would not be legally binding, but it is symbolic of the frustration many feel with the ongoing conflict in Syria, which has claimed between 18,000 and 19,000 lives since March 2011. The Arab countries' push for a resolution came after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed for a united response to the civil war during a speech in Bosnia yesterday.

"Quite simply, we must do better in seeing atrocities coming and telling it like it is. We cannot take refuge behind strong words and weak action," Mr. Ban said.

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