Syria’s government have declared victory on Sunday in a hard-fought battle for the capital Damascus, pounding rebels who had control of parts of its largest city Aleppo.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have struggled to maintain their grip on the country over the past two weeks after a major rebel advance into the two largest cities and an explosion that killed four top security officials.
Government forces have succeeded in reimposing their grip of the capital after a punishing battle – the violence of which has split the city open.
But rebels are still in control of sections of Aleppo, clashing with reinforced army troops for several days.
On a visit to Iran, President Assad’s main ally, Foreign Minister Walid Moualem said: ‘Today I tell you, Syria is stronger… In less than a week they were defeated (in Damascus) and the battle failed.’
‘So they moved on to Aleppo and I assure you, their plots will fail.’
Rebel fighters, patrolling opposition districts in flat-bed trucks flying green-white-and-black ‘independence’ flags, said they were holding off Assad’s forces in the south-western Aleppo district of Salaheddine, where clashes have gone on for days.
Opposition activists also reported fighting in other rebel-held districts of Aleppo, in what could herald the start of a decisive phase in the battle for Syria’s commercial hub, after the army sent tank columns and troop reinforcements last week.
Helicopter gunships hovered over the city shortly after dawn and the thud of artillery boomed across neighbourhoods.
The leader of Syria’s main political opposition group, the Syrian National Council, called for foreign allies to provide heavy weapons to fight President Assad’s ‘killing machine’.
‘The rebels are fighting with primitive weapons… We want weapons that we can stop tanks and planes with. This is what we want,’ SNC chief Abdelbasset Seida said in Abu Dhabi.
He also urged foreign allies to circumvent the divided U.N. Security Council and intervene to help topple the country’s leader.
‘Our friends and allies will bear responsibility for what is happening in Aleppo if they do not move soon,’ he said, adding that talks would start on forming a transitional government.
Arab League leader Nabil Elaraby said the battle in Aleppo amounted to ‘war crimes’, and perpetrators would eventually be punished, Egypt’s MENA state news agency reported.
The Arab League has suspended Syria and lined up with the West and Turkey against President Assad.
Syria’s government blames Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for the revolt.
President Assad’s ruling structure draws strongly on his Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, while his opposition is drawn largely from the Sunni Muslim majority, backed by Sunni leaders who rule nearly all other Arab states.
That has raised fears that the 16-month-old conflict could spread across the wider Middle East, where a sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shi’ites has been at the root of violence in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere.
Shi’ite Iran demonstrated its firm support for Assad by hosting his foreign minister. At a joint news conference with Moualem, Iran’s own Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi rebuked the West and Arab states for holding the ‘illusion’ that Assad could be easily replaced from power in a managed transition.
Syrian state television said soldiers was repelling ‘terrorists’ in Salaheddine and had captured several of their leaders.
Some rebel-held areas were empty of residents.
Fighters were basing themselves in houses – some clearly abandoned in a hurry, with food still in the fridges.
A burnt out tank lay in the street, while nearby another one had been captured intact, covered in tarpaulin and left in a car park, perhaps for the rebels themselves to use against any ground assault by Assad’s forces.
In a largely empty street, flanked by closed shops and run-down buildings, women clad in long black abaya cloaks walked with children next to walls daubed with rebel graffiti – ‘Freedom’, ‘Free Syrian Army’ and ‘Down with Bashar’.
Rubbish lay uncollected and in one street families were packing vans full of mattresses in apparent preparation to flee.
In Damascus, where Assad’s forces pushed back a rebel offensive following a deadly bomb attack on his inner circle, many residents have fled fighting in the outskirts for relative safety in the heart of the capital.
Even the centre has been shattered by the violence. Shops open only between 9 am and 3 pm, food prices have soared and no one dares walk outside after dusk, even in the holy month of Ramadan when streets are normally packed late into the night with people celebrating after a day of fasting.
‘To begin with I was with the regime, for sure,’ said Ahmed, from one of the southern suburbs where the army, backed by helicopter and tanks, launched its fierce counter offensive.
‘But now, no, the regime must go. Take what they want with them, but they must go.’