BEIRUT (Reuters) - A local rebel commander in Aleppo said rebels still control more than half of Syria’s biggest city after a month of fighting and aerial bombardment, and that the military stalemate was playing into the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents.
Assad sent reinforcements to the northern commercial hub in July to seize control back from rebel fighters who had swept into Aleppo from their rural strongholds, and authorities said the army’s mission could be accomplished within days.
Using air power, artillery and ground forces, the army has pushed rebels back in strategic southwestern districts which form a gateway into Aleppo along the main highway from Damascus.
But despite their military superiority, Assad’s forces have yet to press home their advantage across the city, and the military commander of the rebel Fatah Brigade in Aleppo said a lengthy conflict would give his fighters time to grow stronger.
“The main target of this phase (of fighting) is to win time,” Major Anas Ibrahim Abu Zaid told Reuters by telephone.
“If we hold our ground and continue the attacks, the longer we do that (the more) the regime will lose on the international, regional and local fronts, and the position of the rebels will firm up and give us a chance to re-arm,” he said.
The Fatah Brigade, one of the biggest rebel units fighting in the city of 2.5 million people, has 1,300 fighters in Aleppo and another 500 in the surrounding province, Abu Zaid said.
He said the rebel units were fighting in an arc of southwestern districts - Salaheddine, Saif al-Dawla, Amereya and Sheikh Saeed - which have seen some of the heaviest clashes and bombardment over the last several weeks, as well as two neighborhoods in the north-east, Bustan al Basha and Midan.
Assad’s air force was unable to target the rebels when they directly confronted ground troops, for fear of hitting their own soldiers, Abu Zaid said.
“We have six open fronts in the city and this is where the fighting is taking place,” he said, adding that rebels held 60 percent of the city.
In practice, rebel control of urban areas is tenuous, as they are constantly vulnerable to artillery attack and air strikes from helicopter gunships and bombardment from jets firing rockets and dropping bombs.
In Damascus, the army took just a few days to clear rebels from central districts, though fierce fighting continued for weeks in outlying neighborhoods and heavy clashes have raged in town surrounding the capital.
Many rebel units fight under the loose umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, although there is no real unified command. Abu Zaid said that on the ground, the fighters were cooperating.
“There is high coordination between the brigades. There are fronts that are the responsibility of a (single) brigade and other fronts that are shared,” he said. “We call other brigades for help when needed.”
Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Janet McBride