Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages
UPDATE: The fight for Syria’s largest city of Aleppo is intensifying as forces loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad continued to strike rebel-held neighborhoods with the help of tanks and helicopter gunships. The Syrian government claimed victory in the capital of Damascus, saying its forces managed to get rebels to withdraw after days of intense fighting, reports Reuters.
"Today I tell you, Syria is stronger ... In less than a week they were defeated (in Damascus) and the battle failed," Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said on a visit to Iran. "So they moved on to Aleppo and I assure you, their plots will fail."
So far though, it seems rebel fighters are standing their ground and “were clearly in control of parts of Aleppo,” reports Reuters’ Erik Solomon from Aleppo.
The head of the Syrian National Council, the country’s main opposition group, called on the international community to help the rebels fight back against the regime’s heavy weapons, reports the Associated Press. For his part, Syria’s foreign minister harshly criticized the region’s Sunni powers for interfering in his country, accusing them of doing Israel’s bidding. "Israel is the mastermind of all in this crisis," he said.
Meanwhile, the BBC reports that Jordan is opening its first official refugee camp for Syrians who are fleeing the country.
Saturday, July 28: The long-awaited offensive into Syria’s commercial hub of Aleppo appears to have began Saturday as President Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched a wide-scale attack on rebel-held neighborhoods in the country’s largest city. Despite the military's clearly superior firepower, including helicopters and tanks, it seems the rebels managed to keep control of their strongholds, reports the Associated Press. The BBC’s Ian Pannel, who is in Aleppo, reports that the bombardment increased throughout the day. The Guardian’s Luke Harding is also reporting from the Aleppo frontline and writes that “despite the unpromising facts on the ground, the rebels were upbeat.”
The battle for the city is seen as a crucial test for the uprising. On Friday, McClatchy wrote that the fight for Aleppo “would certainly be a climactic moment, if not the climax, in an increasingly complicated civil war.”
The fighting is being closely monitored and while neither side appears to be winning at the moment, experts believe Assad’s forces are likely to end up gaining the upper hand in Aleppo and other major cities, points out Reuters. The balance of power in the countryside, however, is “changing fast,” reports Al Jazeera, noting that the Syrian army has largely disappeared from the areas surrounding Aleppo.
The New York Times cautions that it’s not clear whether the attack was a limited offensive focused on a few neighborhoods, or just the beginning of a wider campaign. Others, however, seem far more certain. “The battle for Aleppo really has begun,” one of Al Jazeera’s correspondents in neighboring Lebanon said.
The international community has been warning for days about the possibility of a massacre in Aleppo, but also largely recognized it was powerless to stop whatever was going to unfold there. On Saturday, Russia also expressed concern about civilian casualties but criticized countries that backed the rebels, noting it was “simply unrealistic” to expect the Syrian government to stand back as armed fighters take control of large areas of the country, reports the AP.