Syria Pounds Rebels in Aleppo as 200,000 Flee Fighting

Residents Flee Aleppo as Rebels See Possible ‘Massacre'
Syrian civilians flee the northern city of Aleppo on July 25, 2012. Photographer: Pierre Torres/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian troops backing President Bashar al-Assad stepped up their assault on rebels in Aleppo, prompting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to predict that Assad’s use of “indiscriminate violence” will hasten the regime’s collapse.

Government forces killed at least 120 people yesterday, mainly in Aleppo, the nation’s commercial hub, and Damascus, the capital, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group. Syrian opposition fighters have seized eight neighborhoods in Aleppo and the road leading to the Turkish border, while the army resumed pounding the city with heavy weapons, according to Al Jazeera television.

About 200,000 people have fled Aleppo and nearby areas in the past two days, Valerie Amos, the United Nations’ top humanitarian affairs official, said in a statement yesterday. The security situation in cities and along main transport routes is making it very difficult for humanitarian agencies to reach displaced families, she said.

“It’s pretty clear that Aleppo is another tragic example of the kind of indiscriminate violence that the Assad regime has committed against its own people,” Panetta told reporters yesterday on his plane as he began a five-day Mideast trip. “If they continue this kind of tragic attack on their own people, it’ll ultimately be a nail in Assad’s coffin.”

Past predictions by U.S. officials that time is running out for Assad have not yet proven correct, as the regime has fought to avoid becoming the latest casualty of the Arab Spring revolts that brought down leaders in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

Regime Thugs

Fierce fighting is taking place near the air force intelligence headquarters in Aleppo, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Troops also shelled villages in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, the central region of Hama and the coastal region of Lattakia, the group said today.

Syrian troops and thugs loyal to Assad, who are locally known as shabiha, committed a new massacre yesterday in a Damascus suburb, Al Jazeera reported, citing Ahmed al-Muathmani, an activist.

“The government forces and thugs have stormed the area this morning right after the Syrian rebels left and have publicly executed 40 people, beheaded a woman” and set houses on fire, he said according to Al Jazeera.

Unified Stance

Arab League chief Nabil el-Arabi said that the killing taking place in Syria, such as in the city of Aleppo, rises to the level of war crimes, the Egyptian state-run Middle East News Agency reported yesterday.

“The key right now is to continue to bring pressure on Syria, to provide assistance to the opposition and provide humanitarian aid, and not do anything to show that the international community is other than unified,” Panetta said.

The U.S. is providing non-lethal aid, such as radios and medical supplies, to the rebels, while leaving it to some Arab nations to provide weapons. The Obama administration has said it does not envision military intervention in Syria.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem denounced what he called interference by the region’s Sunni powers, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Speaking at a news conference in Tehran, he accused them of supporting the rebels in cooperation with Israel.

Aleppo is shaping up as the biggest test yet of opposition fighters’ capabilities against the regime’s artillery and air power. The city is Syria’s commercial capital, with a population the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimates at 3 million.

‘Grave Concerns’

Assad’s fall from power is “just a matter of time,” the former head of the United Nations’ observer mission said July 27. Still, Major General Robert Mood, the Norwegian who commanded the UN monitoring mission in Syria for three months, told a news conference in Oslo the Assad government has the military resources to sustain its fight for months or even years.

The U.S. has “grave concerns” about Assad’s actions, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week in Washington. The U.S. is alarmed that “we will see a massacre in Aleppo, and that’s what the regime appears to be lining up for,” she said.

International and regional efforts have failed to end the violence in Syria, which began in March 2011 and has left more than 19,000 people dead, including about 5,000 government troops, according to the Observatory.

Jordan yesterday opened its first camp for Syrian refugees in Mafraq governorate near the Syrian border, the state-run Petra news agency reported.

The Zaatari camp, which is a facility with than 2,000 tents, can initially receive about 9,000 Syrian refugees, it reported.

About 1,000 to 2,000 Syrians flee to Jordan every day, Foreign Affairs Minister Nasser Judeh said, according to Petra. More than 142,000 Syrians fled to Jordan since the unrest began last year, Judeh said.