Syria: Aleppo under Siege!

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What some are calling the decisive battle of the Syrian revolution may have already started in Aleppo as I publish this. In recent days, the Assad regime has been building up it forces around Aleppo. They have brought in hundreds of tanks. They have stripped defenses from other sections of the country, and for more than a week now they are pounded the opposition held areas of Aleppo with tank fire, long range artillery, and bombs and rockets from its warplanes.

In the meantime the rebel forces have actually been able to strengthen their hold on Aleppo, dig in for the expected assault, and even expand the portions of the city that are under their control. And while most of those civilians who can flee Aleppo for parts elsewhere have done so, the city may as

yet have over a million unarmed civilians who are also under the rain of the Assad regimes bombardment and have only the Free Syrian Army to defend them.

I hope to add much more to this diary later today. I have to go to the CA convention of the Peace & Freedom Party this morning. I am a delegate pledged to Barr-Sheehan, so as usual.

Preparing for the assault| 4 August 2012

More, later...

Reuters has one of the few English language reporters still in Aleppo today. Here is his report:

Syrian forces pound rebel frontline in Aleppo
By Hadeel Al Shalchi
ALEPPO, Syria | Sat Aug 4, 2012 3:34pm BST

(Reuters) - A Syrian army helicopter fired machinegun rounds and troops shelled rebel positions in Aleppo on Saturday, a Reuters witness said, as they tried to break through the insurgents' frontline in a battleground district in the country's largest city.

Earlier in the day, Syrian forces clashed with rebels around Aleppo's television and radio station, activists said, and a local rebel commander said his fighters were preparing for a "strong offensive" by government forces on the city.

Syrian troops backed by armour stormed the last opposition bastion in Damascus on Friday in a drive to crush a rebel offensive that coincided with a bomb attack that killed four of President Bashar al-Assad's senior security officials.

The onslaught continued on Saturday as jets bombarded the capital in a bid to snuff out resistance, a resident said.
In Aleppo's battleground Salaheddine district, rebels from the Free Syrian Army hid in alleyways, dodging the Syrian army's bullets and tank rounds that struck a building in the district on Saturday.

"There is one helicopter and we're hearing two explosions every minute," a Reuters reporter said.

A Syrian activist told Reuters the rebels had earlier sought to extend their area of control from the Salaheddine district, where the most intense fighting has been focused, northwards to the area around the television and radio station.


"The Free Syrian Army pushed from Salaheddine to al-Adhamiya where they clashed this morning with Syrian troops. But they had to retreat," the activist who identified himself as Barraa al-Halabi told Reuters.

A 19-year-old fighter called Mu'awiya al-Halabi, who was at the scene, said Syrian snipers surrounded the station and targeted the rebels.

"We were inside it for a few hours after clashes with the Syrian army but the Syrian army sent snipers and surrounded the TV station and as soon as morning came, the army started shooting. One of our fighters was martyred and four were wounded," he said.
Syrian television said a large number of terrorists, the term it uses for the rebels, were killed and wounded after they tried to storm the television and radio station in Aleppo.

A Reuters journalist who witnessed the clashes said a helicopter strafed rebel positions with machinegun fire near a police station which anti-Assad fighters took on Friday.

"Wake up, wake up. The army's coming," local rebel commander Abu Ali told fighters sleeping in the Zibdeyyeh police station.

Black smoke rose into the sky from areas of Salaheddine, which is seen as a gateway for the Syrian army into the city of 2.5 million inhabitants. Its fate could determine the outcome of a war that has already claimed some 18,000 lives.

A different local rebel commander in Aleppo said he expected a Syrian army attack on rebels "within days", echoing Herve Ladsous, head of the United Nation's peacekeeping department, who said there had been a "considerable buildup of military means".

"We have information that the Syrian army is planning a strong offensive against Aleppo. We know they are planning to attack the city using tanks and aircraft, shooting at us for three to four days and they plan to take the city," Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi said in Aleppo.

Faced with the Syrian army's superior firepower, Oqaidi said the rebels were counting on mass defections by government soldiers once the offensive started.

"At the moment the soldiers cannot leave their bases and they are too afraid to defect. Once they are inside our city they will take off their uniforms and join us," he said.

In Damascus, a resident in the Adawi neighbourhood just north of the central Old City district, said reported a loud explosion at 7 am (0400 GMT) and the sound of jets flying overhead.

"The bombardment has been continuous since 7 am (0400 GMT) in Tadamun district. It hasn't stopped for a moment," said the Adawi resident.

Syrian soldiers deployed on the streets, telling people to stay indoors because of clashes in the nearby Basateen area. On Friday they stormed Tadamun, the last rebel stronghold in the city.
More ...

BBC News has this report:

Syrian crisis: Fresh fighting hits Damascus and Aleppo
4 August 2012 Last updated at 09:23 ET

Fresh fighting has been reported around Syria's capital, Damascus, and in the northern city of Aleppo, where rebels are trying to secure their positions.

Most areas of Aleppo where rebels are entrenched have been bombarded by government forces and clashes have been reported in several districts.
In Damascus, fighting was reported in the Tadamon district on the southern edge of the city, which was earlier stormed by government forces.

Shooting and explosions were also heard in central parts of the capital, as well as in western areas, in and around Dumar.

Video footage posted by activists showed a military jet flying over what they said was the rebel-held quarter of Salah al-Din in Aleppo followed by a loud explosion.

Activists reported clashes in several areas, including around the officers' club and a security headquarters.

But the regime has yet to unleash a concerted offensive to drive rebels out of Aleppo. UN officials believe the government is building up its forces for just such a campaign to regain control of a city it cannot afford to lose, the BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon reports.

Kim Sengupta of the UK's Independent newspaper told the BBC from Aleppo that there are two front lines in the city, one in Salah al-Din and one near the ancient iron gate.

There have been skirmishes in which rebels have done rather well, he says, seizing three police stations and retaking a fourth on Friday, and rebels are "incrementally" increasing the size of the area they hold.

The rebels have "remarkable" defence capability in Salah al-Din where government tanks had been trying to enter, but as an area full of narrow twisting lanes, it is perfect for guerrilla warfare, he adds.

However, the full thrust of the armour and the artillery from the regime side has not been seen yet, he adds. More...

The Guardian has this report today:

Syrian rebels ignore world's fears in struggle for Aleppo
Battle for Syrian city appears to be nearing decisive phase with reinforcements continuing to bolster Free Syrian Army
Martin Chulov in Aleppo and Ian Black
Friday 3 August 2012 14.26 EDT
Fighting raged across Syria on Friday as Bashar al-Assad's armed forces pounded opposition strongholds after the shock resignation of the UN peace envoy Kofi Annan left the international community scrambling for effective policies.

Rebel-held areas of the northern city of Aleppo came under attack from artillery, helicopters and fighter jets, though an expected government ground offensive did not materialise. The UN had predicted on Thursday that an attack was imminent. Battles erupted near the heart of Aleppo for the first time in the fortnight-long battle. Rebels claimed to control parts of the northeast, east and south of the city, but western Aleppo remained a regime stronghold.

The battle for Syria's second city appears to be nearing a decisive phase with reinforcements continuing to bolster the Free Syrian Army (FSA) ranks. Several hundred fighters arrived from Idlib and Hama and rebel leaders say thousands more are expected before what they claim will be new phase in the fight sometime next week. More...

Al Arabiya News filed this report:

FSA claims control of more than half of Aleppo as battles continue
Sat Aug 04, 2012 15:24 pm (KSA) 12:24 pm (GMT)
The opposition, Free Syrian Army (FSA) claimed control of around 60 percent of the city of Aleppo, Al Arabiya reported on Saturday.

After still continuing battles with the Syrian regime’s army, FSA was able to control buildings of radio and TV stations in the northern city; however it claimed its later retreat from inside the buildings as “tactical.”

Captain Hussam Abu Mohammed, who participated in the battles around the buildings, said that the army’s retreat from the buildings was “tactical,” after the regime’s army’s shelling the FSA from helicopters.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebel forces withdrew from the district of Izaa where the state television building is situated.

“Rebel forces planted explosives there, and regime forces shelled the area,” the Britain-based Observatory reported. “The rebels then withdrew from the area.”

According to state news agency SANA, “mercenary terrorist groups attacked civilians and the state TV building (in Aleppo), while the army defended it.”

FSA says it is now in control of the areas surrounding the media buildings.

And always remember the Al Jazeera Live Blog for updates:

Syrian security official says the battle for Aleppo 'has not yet begun'
August 4, 2012 - 15:14

The battle for Aleppo has not yet begun, and shelling by troops is just the start of what is to come, a senior Syrian security official in the region said on Saturday.

"The battle for Aleppo has not yet begun, and what is happening now is just the appetizer," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity, adding: "The main course will come later."

The official said new military reinforcements had arrived, and that there were at least 20,000 troops on the ground.

"The other side are also sending reinforcements," he added, referring to the rebel forces.

- Agence France Presse

From EAWorldView today we have this report on Syria:

Syria Live Coverage: Has the Regime Lost Aleppo?

Saturday, August 4, 2012 at 11:42 | Scott Lucas

1427 GMT: Syria. The International Committee of the Red Cross has appealed to "all parties involved in the fighting to fulfill their obligations under international humanitarian law".

The Red Cross said it has already shared its concerns with the Syrian authorities and some opposition groups, but it was making "an urgent public appeal so that it will reach the warring sides on the ground without delay".

1420 GMT: Syria. The New York Times produces a different image of insurgents in Aleppo:

Just before sunrise, a select group of Syrian rebel fighters steps away from the front lines here for a task their commanders now consider a vital and urgent part of the war effort: baking bread.

The floppy moons that they produce, pita to Americans, usually go quickly to hungry residents and rebels. Bread is a mainstay of the Syrian diet — it accompanies every meal — and in a city paralyzed by two weeks of war, the bakery lines show that basic commerce has become a battleground of its own.

“The regime has tried to deprive our supporters of water and gas, and now they are using bread,” said Basheer al-Hajeh, a member of Al Tawheed Brigade, one of the main rebel militias in Aleppo. But he said the rebels had learned how to fight back against the government’s attempts to keep bread and other resources out of opposition-controlled areas.

“We took control of the wheat warehouses in Aleppo’s suburbs,” he said. “We have many of them, in several areas, and they might keep us supplied for weeks.”

1418 GMT: Egypt. The acting head of the Coptic Christian church has complained about the new Cabinet, saying one seat among 35 members is not enough to reflect a community that is 1/10th of the population.

Bishop Bakhomious, who replaced Pope Shenouda following his death in March, said, "I will not congratulate the new prime minister on the formation of the government because it is unfair....We had expected an increase in the representation of Copts especially after the number of ministries increased to 35 ministry. But the formation ignored all the known rights and concepts of citizenship.It is not right that Copts get treated in this way.

1412 GMT: Syria. Sounds of fighting in the Salaheddin section of Aleppo today:

1352 GMT: Bahrain. Leading activist Zainab AlKhawaja, arrested Thursday night following a solitary protest on a roundabout, has been charged with tearing a portrait of the King belonging to the Ministry of Interior, according to Said Yousif of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR). Zainab will reportedly be held under investigation for 7 days.

Yesterday, BCHR along with the Gulf Center for Human Rights put out an urgent appeal for her release, allegding mistreatment by police during her arrest and interrogation.

1328 GMT: Syria. Mustafa Al Sheikh, the head of the Free Syrian Army's Military Council, visits Anadan in Aleppo Province today:

1320 GMT: Syria. An Iranian diplomat in Damascus has told State TV that 48 Iranian pilgrims have been kidnapped from a bus in the Syrian capital en route to the airport.

Majid Kamjou said, "There are no reports about the fate of the pilgrims. The embassy and Syrian officials are trying to trace the kidnappers."

1122 GMT: Syria. Reuters is reporting, from witnesses, tht regime forces are using artillery shells, tanks, and helicopters to attack insurgents in the Salaheddine district of Aleppo.

"There is one helicopter and we're hearing two explosions every minute," a Reuters reporter said.

1039 GMT: Syria. Activists and insurgents have reported intense fighting this morning near the television and radio station in Aleppo.

"The Free Syria Army pushed from Salaheddine to al-Adhamiya where they clashed this morning with Syrian troops. But they had to retreat," activist Barraa al-Halabi said.

A 19-year-old fighter named Mu'awiya al-Halabi said Syrian snipers surrounded the station and targeted the insurgents: "We were inside it for a few hours after clashes with the Syrian army but the Syrian army sent snipers and surrounded the TV station and as soon as morning came, the army started shooting. One of our fighters was martyred and four were wounded," he said.

State news agency SANA, citing "an official source", said "armed terrorist groups" had been killed in the radio and TV station but denied that the insurgents had taken control of the facility.

1007 GMT: Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Interior has announced a policeman and a protester were killed in overnight clashes in the Eastern Province.

"A security patrol came under heavy gunfire from four armed rioters on motorbikes" in the district of Qatif, ministry spokesman Mansur al-Turki said. "Security forces hunted down the armed rioters who were on motorbikes and exchanged fire with them. One of the four caught was wounded and he died while on the way to the hospital."

Witnesses said the attackers were participating in a protest that took place in Qatif late on Friday.

0955 GMT: Syria. The militant group Al-Nusra has claimed the kidnapping and execution of Syrian television presenter Mohammed al-Saeed.

"The heroes of western Ghouta [in Damascus Province] imprisoned the shabih [pro-regime militia] presenter on July 19," Al-Nusra said in a statement, a photograph of Saeed with his back against a wall in an unknown location. "He was then killed after he had been interrogated."

The statement warned, "May this be a lesson to all those who support the regime."

State TV director Maan Saleh said: "We have no material proof of this killing."

0949 GMT: Lebanon and Syria. An-Nahar reports that the Government has decided against deporting Syrians, even if there were judicial cases allowing their expulsion.

According to the daily, the decision was made after consultations between President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Speaker Nabih Berri, and other political parties in the Cabinet.

On Wednesday, Lebanon deported 14 Syrians, drawing criticism from human rights activists.

0937 GMT: Syria. The Associated Press claims "a string of...incidents in recent months that have raised fears among Syrian refugees that Assad’s regime is extending its crackdown across the border into neighboring Jordan". It asserts, Refugees and Jordanian officials believe Syrian regime agents are operating in the kingdom on a campaign to hunt down opponent and intimidate those who have fled."

0930 GMT: Syria. Writing in The New York Times, Kapil Komireddi warns of "civil disintegration and ethnic cleansing":

A churchgoing Syrian told me that he used to see himself primarily as “Syrian” and that religious identity, in political terms, was an idea that never occurred to him — until an opposition gang attacked his family earlier this year in Homs. “It’s a label they pinned on us,” he said. “If their revolution is for everyone, as they keep insisting it is, why are Christians being targeted? It is because what they are waging is not a struggle for freedom, and it’s certainly not for everyone.”

As Saudi Arabian arms and money bolster the opposition, the 80,000 Christians who’ve been “cleansed” from their homes in Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan in Homs Province in March by the Free Syrian Army have gradually given up the prospect of ever returning home.

The rebels’ conduct has prompted at least some Sunnis who had supported the rebels and once-wavering Syrians to pledge renewed loyalty to Assad. Many who once regarded the regime as a kleptocracy now view it as the best guarantor of Syria’s endangered pluralism.

A Sunni shopkeeper in the impoverished suburb of Set Zaynab, which was partly destroyed in the clashes last week, no longer supports the rebellion. “I wanted Assad to go because he is corrupt,” he said. “But what happened here, what they did, it scared me. It made me angry. I cannot support the murder of my neighbors in the name of change. You cannot bring democracy by killing innocent people or by burning the shrines of Shiites. Syrians don’t do that. This is the work of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia,” he added, referring to the ultra conservative Sunni sect.

0710 GMT: Libya. For the first time since the fall of the Qaddafi regime, a car bomb has exploded in the capital Tripoli.

The explosion near the offices of the military police slightly wounded a Tunisian national.

0620 GMT: Syria. Russia has agreed to purchase crude oil from Damascus in exchange for refined oil products, providing Syria with much-needed fuel.

The deal was struck as high-level Syrian officials visited Moscow.

0550 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria claim 137 deaths on Friday at the hands of security forces, with about half of them in the mass killing in Arbaeen in Hama. Twenty-one people died in Damascus and its suburbs and 18 in Aleppo.

The LCCS focus on civilian casualties, so the level of insurgent deaths is unknown. The regime has stopped posting figures about its forces.

0530 GMT: Syria. We begin Saturday with the provocative analysis put forward by James Miller to close last night's Live Coverage:

The Free Syrian Amry has more and more weapons, and has proven it can beat Assad's armour. Those fighters have been hit hard by the helicopters and jet fighters, but have proven that they are strong enough to take those hits. We have now gone many days without a regime victory in the area, and the FSA continues to advance. Perhaps as much of 70% of Aleppo is under some degree of FSA control, while the insurgents are closing in on Assad's military bases south of Salaheddin.

Common knowledge says that the regime will strike soon, but common knowledge said that the regime would retake the city last Saturday. It didn't happen. The FSA won the battles. In fact, there is no available empirical evidence that suggests the Assad regime can win the future battles inside Aleppo.

The regime could make a significant military assault in a bid to take Aleppo back, but it would likely have to be much larger than anything we have seen so far.

Without being alarmist, the most likely scenario may not be a regime assault on the city. Soon, the Free Syrian Army could be poised to take Aleppo --- all of it.

The regime did claim a victory elsewhere on Friday, sending in thousands of troops to clear the last insurgent-held area of Damascus, Tadamon. Outside the biggest cities, however, opposition forces have consolidated their control of territory, especially in the north.

Doing so, they have effectively surrounded Aleppo, as the map at the top of the entry indicates. So the question grows: will the fall of Syria's largest city seal the fate of the Assad regime?

Here are my related diaries on Syria:
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BREAKING: Big Explosion hits #Damascus #Syria
UPDATED: Syria's Charge D'Affaires Quits London Post
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UPDATED: Russia reported to be preparing to evacuate from Syria
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6:13 PM PT: 4
Back from the Peace & Freedom Party California State Convention. We just nominated Roseanne Barr and Cindy Sheehan as our presidential and veep candidates. Roseanne had this great line in her speech that I wanted to tweet but my phone had died trying to follow the tweets out of Aleppo. Part of it was "the economy's not broken, its fixed!" but there was another part to. It will come to me, if not there's lots of video. Anyhow, I'm back on the Syria beat.