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In Syria, Building Up For An Extended Battle

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Government troops are battling rebels for control of Syria's largest city, Aleppo. The government launched a major offensive over the weekend to retake neighborhoods held by the Free Syrian Army. Both sides appear to be preparing for an extended battle that could prove crucial to the outcome of the 17-month-old uprising.

After days of massing troops and weapons, the government assaulted rebel-held neighborhoods with tanks, helicopters and artillery, as heard in an amateur video uploaded to YouTube.

Mohammed Saeed, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian Revolution General Commission, says over Skype that the rebels held their ground.

"The troops tried to attack Salaheddin Square, but these troops couldn't do anything, but the Free Syrian Army could attack the government army, and more than two tanks now are destroyed," he said.

Activists disputed government claims that its troops had retaken Salaheddin.

The U.N. estimates that the fighting has driven nearly 10 percent of Aleppo's 2.5 million residents from their homes. Doctor Na'el Hariri of the University of Aleppo Hospital is caring for some who are sheltering in schools and parks. He says the regime appears focused on taking control of the city, not on saving its residents.

"The regime proves now that it has no red line, no limit. And now we're looking toward hundreds of thousands of people who are going to be evacuated from Aleppo," he said. "The regions where they are sheltered are going to be attacked again, so they have to move to another region."

Observers point out that the forces in the battle for Aleppo are mismatched, and their goals and tactics are different.

Elias Hanna, a military analyst and retired Lebanese general, says that if the rebels survive to fight another day, they win. And even if the government wins on the battlefield, they are likely to lose in the arena of public opinion.

"If you want to go into Aleppo, and you destroy and you kill, you turn the people against you in a certain period of time, and also the international opinion, even Russia," he said. "And if you fail, you will lose Aleppo. Losing Aleppo is a major blow, because you are losing the second center of gravity for the regime."

He points out that the rebels will have to continue their hit-and-run tactics for some time, as they are politically divided, they have no safe havens, and they are not getting the heavy weapons they need from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

"I don't see really an ascending kind of equipping, training and arming this Free Syrian Army, because everybody's following what we call a low-cost strategy — leave it for itself, it's going to fall from inside," he said.

Over the weekend, Abdelbasset Sida, head of the opposition Syrian National Council, appealed for foreign assistance. He said that if foreign friends fail to help, they will bear responsibility for the outcome of the fighting in Aleppo.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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