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Syria's Aleppo Proves Tough Battle For Assad's Army

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In this Sunday, July 29, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers are seen at a checkpoint at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Turkpix) | AP

By William Maclean

LONDON, Aug 2 (Reuters) - The Syrian army's brisk recapture of parts of Damascus is unlikely to be repeated in Aleppo, where open rebel supply lines, hard-to-assail narrow streets and an apparent lack of elite manpower will limit its commanders' options.

The struggle in parts of Aleppo held by insurgents is likely to be more protracted than last month's battles in the capital, inflicting further bloodshed and damage on Syria's largest city and driving more of the population out, analysts say.

One reason the army's superior firepower has not translated into a quick victory may be the narrow streets and alleys that give cover for Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels in central Aleppo.

That complex geography in a city vital to Syria's economy and to President Bashar al-Assad's survival makes it problematic to bring the military's full firepower to bear.

"It would destroy a lot of the city and that would undermine the 'support' of the population for the regime," said Nikolaos van Dam, a Dutch historian of Syrian politics and ex-diplomat.

"The regime will need more time to plan. The army is not really well trained for urban warfare," he said. "It is easier for 100 armed FSA men to infiltrate the city and play cat-and-mouse than for the regime to really eradicate them."

Syrian forces took just a few days to dislodge rebels in Damascus who had seized parts of the capital after a July 18 bombing killed four of Assad's top security men, including his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat.


While a sustained onslaught in Aleppo may start at any moment, few see the Damascus clashes as a template for Aleppo.

"The rebels seem to have been over-extended in Damascus and expected more progress than they achieved, and they ended up getting a bloody nose despite the bombing," said Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Britain's Bradford University.

"But in Aleppo, if anything it is the regime's elite forces that are over-extended. The regime's elite forces are always going to be more focused on Damascus, and while we have to be cautious about these judgements, Aleppo seems like it is going to be rather more difficult for Assad."

On Thursday government troops bombarded Aleppo's strategic Salaheddine district with tank and artillery fire while rebels tried to consolidate their hold on areas they have seized.

Such bombardments are seen by some experts as the likely preferred government tactic in the coming days, rather than any sustained attempt at street fighting.

A Syria expert at Exclusive Analysis, a London-based risk consultancy, said the army lacked the manpower to surround Aleppo and isolate the insurgents there, noting that it had failed to seal off Homs, a city half the size of Aleppo.

"Government forces, lacking sufficient 'boots on the ground' to recapture the city, are very likely to use overwhelming force, including artillery, helicopters, tanks' main armament and jets against areas where insurgents are based," said the expert, who declined to be named due to the topic's sensitivity.

"These factors are likely to lead to widespread destruction across Sunni neighbourhoods in Aleppo."


The expert said insurgents in Aleppo would be hard-pressed to prevent Assad's troops, supported by tanks, artillery and helicopters, from penetrating urban areas in an all-out assault.

However, the rebels now control an open supply route from Turkey, allowing them to regroup and resupply.

"As such, even if the rebels are unable to hold individual neighbourhoods in the face of government forces, they are likely to be able to redeploy across neighbourhoods and resume their activities," the expert said.

Kamel Ayham of Eurasia Group, another consultancy, said the Syrian military was taking "a more nuanced approach" to Aleppo that was intended to limit the impact on civilians somewhat in a city traditionally loyal to the government.

"More importantly, rebel forces have become much more capable and can inflict damages on the regime's forces. A more calibrated approach is increasingly necessary; however I expect the Syrian regime to retake the city within the next 10 days."

Others see the fight potentially lasting longer.

Van Dam said video footage that emerged this week of the apparent execution of pro-Assad militiamen by rebels "may further undermine and shake the morale" of individuals working for the government intelligence and security services.

"Their power and arrogance must have had a great blow," he said.

Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at Britain's Royal United Services Institute military think-tank, said the rebels appeared to have become more effective at restricting the military's mobility in northern Syria, using improvised bombs and ambushes.

"These are taking a serious toll on regime armour, to a seemingly greater extent than is the case around Damascus."

The Exclusive Analysis expert said social media monitoring indicated that government forces deployed to Aleppo in the past few days had lower-quality equipment than units that had been involved in other fights critical to the Assad's grip on power.

One example was the deployment of Soviet-era T-55 tanks as opposed to more advanced T-72 tanks.

"We assess that this means that mainstream Army units, manned by Sunni conscripts, as opposed to more loyal elite formations (e.g. the Republican Guard and 4th Division) with better equipment, are being used," he said.

"If true, this would indicate that armoured units deployed in and around Aleppo are more likely to defect than those used to recapture Homs and Damascus." (Reporting by William Maclean; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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