* Aircraft resume assault on biggest city
* Turkey's Erdogan says he "cannot remain a spectator"
* Battle for Aleppo seen as potential turning point
By Erika Solomon
TAL RIFAAT, Syria, July 28 Military helicopters
pounded a rebel-held district of Aleppo on Saturday and armoured
units positioned themselves for an onslaught that could
determine the fate of Syria's biggest city, opposition sources
Turkey, once a friend but now a fierce critic of the Syrian
government, joined growing diplomatic pressure on President
Bashar al-Assad, calling for international steps to deal with
the military build-up.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group
which collects information on the 16-month-old uprising against
Assad, reported helicopter attacks on the central Salaheddine
district of Aleppo and fighting elsewhere in the city.
"Helicopters are participating in clashes at the entrance of
Salaheddine district and bombarding it," the group said in an
emailed statement. "There are also violent clashes at the
entrances to Sakhour district."
One opposition activist said he had seen tanks and armoured
carriers heading for Salaheddine.
On the approaches to Aleppo from the north many villagers
were still shopping or tending their fields. But fighters from
the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) were also in evidence, while a
military helicopter clattered overhead in the distance.
One man in his forties, carrying his family on a motorcycle,
said he was fleeing the fighting in Aleppo and heading to the
town of Azaz near the Turkish border.
"We are living in a war zone," he told Reuters. "I and my
relatives are just going back and back and forth, trying to stay
away from the fighting. We left Aleppo when we saw smoke and
On the road south from the Turkish border to Aleppo rebel
soldiers had set up checkpoints bearing the sign: "This is an
FSA checkpoint. May God protect you."
The battle for the city of 2.5 million people is seen as a
crucial test for a government that has committed major military
resources to retaining control of its two main power centres,
Aleppo and the capital Damascus.
While neither side has managed to gain the upper hand, the
outcome of the uprising is being watched anxiously in the region
and beyond, amid fears that sectarian conflict could spread to
Military experts believe that while Assad's more powerful
military will overcome the rebels in Aleppo and other major
cities, it risks loss of control in the countryside because the
loyalty of large sections of the army is in doubt.
"Assad's forces are likely to achieve a tactical victory
that will represent a setback to opposition forces and allows
the regime to demonstrate its military dominance," said analyst
Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group, adding however that the rebels
were getting stronger while the military was on the wane.
Three rebel fighters were killed in clashes before dawn on
Saturday in Aleppo, the Observatory said. It said 160 people
were reported killed in Syria on Friday, adding to an overall
death toll of around 18,000 since the uprising began.
Video footage provided by the Observatory showed smoke
rising over apartment blocks in the city into a hazy sky on
Saturday. The sound of sporadic gunfire could be clearly heard.
Fighting was reported in other towns across Syria: Deraaa,
the cradle of the revolution, Homs, the scene of some of the
bloodiest combat, and Hama, where a revolt against Assad's
father in the early 1980s was suppressed with thousands of
At least 10 people were killed on Saturday when Syrian
security forces went into Maadameyat al-Sham near Damascus, the
TURKEY CALLS FOR ACTION
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said late on Friday
that international institutions needed to work together to
address the military assault on Aleppo and Assad's threat to use
chemical weapons against external enemies.
"There is a build-up in Aleppo, and the recent statements
with respect to the use of weapons of mass destruction are
actions that we cannot remain an observer or spectator to," he
said at a news conference in London with British Prime Minister
"Steps need to be taken jointly within the United Nations
Security Council, the Organisation of Islamic Countries, the
Arab League, and we must work together to try to overcome the
situation," he said.
Cameron said Britain and Turkey were concerned that Assad's
government was about to carry out some "some truly appalling
acts around and in the city of Aleppo".
Russia said international support for Syrian rebels would
lead to "more blood" and the government could not be expected to
willingly give in to its opponents.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country has vetoed
three U.N. Security Council resolutions intended to increase
pressure on Assad, said Western and Arab nations should exert
more influence on rebels to stop fighting.
Russia also said it would not allow searches of
Russian-flagged ships under new European Union sanctions
governing vessels suspected of carrying weapons to Syria.
U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay urged both Syrian government
forces and rebels on Friday to spare civilians in Aleppo,
voicing deep concern at the "likelihood of an imminent major
confrontation" in the city reminiscent of other deadly assaults.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was
deeply concerned about reports that Syria could use chemical
weapons and demanded that the government should state it would
not use them "under any circumstances".
But the White House said such a promise from the Syrian
president was "certainly not enough" given Assad had paid only
lip service to a U.N.-backed peace plan.
"Assad's word is not worth very much," White House spokesman
Jay Carney said. "Any use of those weapons, any failure to
safeguard those stockpiles would be a very serious transgression
that would result in those responsible being held accountable."
In stating this week that it would not use chemical weapons
against its own people, but might do so against external
threats, Syria caused major international concern about its
stockpiles of non-conventional weapons.
The increase in fighting in Aleppo follows a bomb attack on
July 18 that killed Assad's defence minister and three other top
officials in Damascus, a development that led some analysts to
speculate that the government's grip was slipping.
Since then, Assad's forces have mounted a strong
counter-attack against rebels in Damasacus as well as
concentrating forces for an expected assault on Aleppo.