Syrian opposition forces braced Friday for a decisive “mother of all” battle in Aleppo against President Bashar al-Assad’s army battling to retake the country’s commercial capital in what the United States said it feared could become a massacre.
The Syrian army has been sending waves of reinforcements towards the northern city, and Troops stationed on the outskirts of Aleppo unleashed barrages of heavy-caliber mortar rounds on the western neighborhoods of Saladin, al-Sukkari and al-Fardos, while Russian MI-25 helicopter gunships struck al-Sakhour in the east with rockets, several opposition activists in the city said.
“The special forces were deployed on Wednesday and Thursday on the edges of the city, and more troops have arrived to take part in a generalized counter-offensive on Friday or Saturday,” a security source told AFP of Aleppo.
Opposition fighters also brought in reinforcements, with the source estimating that between 1,500 and 2,000 opposition fighters had arrived from outside Syria’s most populous city to reinforce some 2,000 already fighting inside Aleppo.
“They are mainly present in the southern and eastern suburbs of the city, mainly Salaheddin and nearby districts,” he said.
The airport was cut off from the city, as four of the five roads leading to it were under rebel control, he added.
Rebels also said a regime assault appeared imminent.
“We expect a major offensive at any time, specifically on areas across the southern belt, from east to west,” Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), told AFP via Skype.
Okaidi added that some 100 tanks and a large number of military vehicles had arrived in the country’s commercial hub.
In the first reported casualty on Friday, a man of about 60 wearing a traditional white prayer outfit was killed near a park in Saladin. His body was placed in a mosque pending identification.
Thirty-four people were killed in Aleppo and its environs on Thursday, according to opposition activists keeping a tally of casualties in the northern city.
“The rebels have so far been nimble, and civilians have mostly been the victims of the bombardment,” said activist Abu Mohammad al-Halabi, speaking by phone from the city.
“There is lots of internal displacement, and schools have been turned to makeshift shelters that are packed. One shell hitting a school will result in a catastrophe,” he said.
On July 20 the rebels launched an all-out assault to overrun Aleppo, a move analysts say is aimed at establishing a bastion close to the rebel military headquarters in neighboring Turkey.
The newspaper al-Watan, which is close to the regime, led on Thursday with the headline “Aleppo, the mother of all battles,” adding that “the army continues to chase terrorists in the outskirts of Damascus and the province.”
Citing an Arab diplomatic source, it added: “Aleppo will be the last battle waged by the Syrian army to crush the terrorists and after that Syria will emerge from the crisis.”
Washington warned that the Syrian regime may be preparing to carry out a massacre in the city.
“This is the concern, that we will see a massacre in Aleppo, and that’s what the regime appears to be lining up for,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
“Our hearts are with the people of Aleppo. And again, this is another desperate attempt by a regime that is going down to try to maintain control, and we are greatly concerned about what they are capable of in Aleppo.”
But she stuck to the U.S. position of only providing non-lethal assistance to the opposition rebels who have been fighting for 16 months to topple Assad.
“We do not believe that pouring more fuel on this fire is going to save lives. We are working in non-lethal ways. We are working to support the Syrian opposition,” the spokeswoman told journalists.