BEIRUT — Food and cooking gas were in short supply and power cuts plunged homes into darkness as soldiers and rebels battled Tuesday to tip the scales in the fight for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the current focus of its civil war.
Life for Aleppo’s 3 million residents was becoming increasingly unbearable as a military siege entered its 11th day. While rebels seized two police stations, Syrian ground forces pummeled the opposition strongholds of Salaheddine and Seif al-Dawla in the city’s southwest, activists said. Government helicopters also pounded those neighborhoods.
“The regime couldn’t enter the neighborhoods so they were shelling from a distance with helicopters and artillery,” said Mohammed Nabehan, who fled Aleppo for the Kilis refugee camp just across the Turkish border some 30 miles (50 kilometers) away.
Nabehan and others said it was a struggle to find food.
“The humanitarian situation here is very bad,” Mohammed Saeed, an activist living in the city, told The Associated Press by Skype. “There is not enough food and people are trying to leave. We really need support from the outside. There is random shelling against civilians,” he added. “The city has pretty much run out of cooking gas, so people are cooking on open flames or with electricity, which cuts out a lot.”
Days of shelling have forced many civilians to flee to other neighborhoods or even escape the city altogether. The U.N. said Sunday that 200,000 had left Aleppo.
As the bloodshed mounted, the Arab League chief accused President Bashar Assad’s regime of atrocities.
“The massacres that are happening in Aleppo and other places in Syria amount to war crimes that are punishable under international law,” Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said in Cairo.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Washington is “not contemplating any unilateral steps” in Syria. There are fears that military intervention could exacerbate the war. Syria’s close ties to Iran and the Islamic militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon mean that the conflict has the potential to draw in the country’s neighbors.
The battle for Aleppo is among the most significant of the 17-month-old Syrian uprising. If the regime loses its grip on Aleppo, that could be a tipping point in the civil war.
“It remains the case that for its own legitimacy and credibility, the Syrian government must regain control of Aleppo,” said David Hartwell, senior Middle East analyst at the defense and intelligence group IHS Jane’s. “It also remains the case that the opposition, not fixated yet on holding territory, intend to make the Syrian army pay a high price as they do this.”
Although the rebels are outgunned by the regime’s heavy weapons, they have captured a number of government tanks in operations against army positions outside the city, activists say. Saeed said they planned to use them in future operations.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said rebels seized the Salihin and Bab al-Neyrab police stations Tuesday in battles that lasted several hours. He said the fighting killed about 40 police officers and soldiers as well as a general.
Still, the regime appears to have regained the momentum in the days since a July 18 bombing that killed four top Assad lieutenants. Many observers expect government forces to drown out the rebel run on Aleppo as they did in Damascus last week.
The official Syrian news agency said government forces were pursuing the “remnants of armed terrorist groups” in Aleppo’s Salaheddine neighborhood and inflicting heavy losses.
The government refers to its opponents as terrorists, saying the uprising is being driven by foreign extremists — not Syrians seeking reform. Although the conflict began with mostly peaceful protests, the spiral of violence has appeared to radicalize at least some of the opposition. There are signs of militant jihads joining the fray.
A high-ranking Western diplomat familiar with the intelligence assessments on Syria said there is a great deal of concern in the West over the flow of foreign militants into Syria to fight a jihad, or holy war, against Assad’s regime.
Militants from Chechnya, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been joining the rebels in significant number, he said. They are entering by way of Iraq and Lebanon and bringing along skills gleaned from battling the Americans and Russians, according to the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss such matters.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have both expressed a willingness to fund the revolt and are believed to be sending money to rebels to purchase weapons. On Tuesday, the official Saudi Press Agency said a weeklong national campaign to support “our brothers in Syria” had collected $117 million in cash donations to outfit relief convoys for Syrian refugees.
The violence has fueled a growing refugee crisis in neighboring countries.
According Turkish prime minister’s office, some 44,000 Syrian refugees are being sheltered in tent cities and temporary housing in camps along the border. While Turkish authorities say they have yet to see a massive surge in refugees from Aleppo, they are prepared to house up to 100,000.
Jordan, which also has witnessed a steady influx of refugees, is building a tent camp along its border — something it was initially reluctant to do for fear of embarrassing Syria by calling attention to the refugee problem. But with 142,000 Syrians having already fled across the border, according to the Jordanians, new facilities were needed to house them all. Jordan said this week that up to 2,000 new refugees are arriving daily.
As the fighting rages, Syria’s political opposition continued to splinter.
Haitham al-Maleh, an 81-year-old lawyer and veteran Syrian opposition figure, announced in Cairo that he was forming his own group, the Council of Syrian Revolutionary Trustees. The opposition’s fragmentation has proved to be one of its most serious pitfalls, and there is little chance that his small council will change the calculus of the uprising.
The infighting has prevented the movement from gaining the traction it needs to present a credible alternative to Assad.
Indeed, many among the rebel ranks discount the political opposition entirely, saying it is out of touch with the people on the ground. In the past month, the rebels have demonstrated greater capabilities and have mounted the biggest challenges to the regime so far in the revolt, even though many of the rebel groups are also disparate and operate largely independently.
But the longer the civil war continues, the higher the likelihood of drawing in neighboring countries.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a televised address Tuesday, signaled that Turkey would not remain indifferent to developments in Syria that could threaten its security.
Erdogan did not elaborate, but his government has said that ethnic Kurds have seized control of five towns in northern Syria. The Turks are concerned that Syrian Kurds may seek an autonomous region or an alliance with their ethnic brethren in northern Iraq and Turkey. Kurdish rebels have long been fighting for an autonomous region in Turkey.
Associated Press writers Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Zeina Karam and Paul Schemm in Beirut, Aya Batrawy in Cairo, Bassem Mroue in Kilis, Turkey, and Ayse Wieting in Istanbul contributed to this report.