08/02/2012 10:21 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2012

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

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)



09/09/2012 12:25 PM EDT

Syria Blasts Aleppo By Air

09/05/2012 7:50 AM EDT

Syrian City In Flames

08/25/2012 1:45 PM EDT

Lebanese Pilgrim Freed


Hussein Ali Omar, 60, one of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims that Syrian rebels have been holding for three months in Syria, hugs his mother, right, upon arrival at his house in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, 2012. Syrian rebels freed Omar on Saturday in a move aimed at easing cross-border tensions after a wave of abductions of Syrian citizens in Lebanon. The Shiite pilgrims were abducted May 22 after crossing into Syria from Turkey on their way to Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

08/24/2012 12:22 PM EDT

Daraya, Syria


This image made from video and released by Shaam News Network and accessed Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, purports to show the funeral of children in Daraya, near Damascus, Syria. Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopters broke into a Damascus suburb on Thursday following two days of shelling and intense clashes as part of a widening offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces to seize control of parts of the capital and surrounding areas from rebel fighters, activists said. At least 15 people were killed in the offensive on Daraya, only a few miles (kilometers) southwest of Damascus. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network SNN via AP video)

08/24/2012 11:05 AM EDT

Lebanon Sees Heaviest Clashes In Months

Clashes between Assad supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime killed two people in Lebanon on Friday, the Associated Press reports. 17 people were injured.

The AP gives more context:

Syria was in virtual control of its smaller neighbor for many years, posting tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, before withdrawing under pressure in 2005. Even without soldiers on the ground, Syria remains influential, and its civil war has stirred longstanding tensions that have lain under Lebanon's surface.

Read more on HuffPost World.

08/24/2012 11:02 AM EDT

Tripoli, Lebanon


A Sunni gunman fires a gun during clashes that erupted between pro and anti-Syrian regime gunmen in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. The latest round of fighting first erupted on Monday in northern Lebanon and at least 15 have been killed in Tripoli this week and more than 100 have been wounded in fighting that is a spillover from Syria's civil war. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

08/24/2012 11:00 AM EDT

Refugee Numbers Soar

@ KenRoth :

UN reports 200,000 #Syria refugees, 30,000 in past week alone. Many more internally displaced not counted.

08/23/2012 2:00 PM EDT

Azaz, Syria


Syrian boy Musataf Alhafiz, 11, who fled his home with his family due to fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels, carries his brother Saif, 9 months, while he and others take refuge at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey, near the Syrian town of Azaz, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012. Thousands of Syrians who have been displaced by the country's civil war are struggling to find safe shelter while shelling and airstrikes by government forces continue. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

08/23/2012 12:09 PM EDT

Heaviest Bombardment This Month

Helicopter gunships shelled Damascus on Wednesday as Syrian security forces intensified their assault on the capital. Activists report that at least 47 people were killed.

"The whole of Damascus is shaking with the sound of shelling," a woman in the neighborhood of Kfar Souseh told Reuters.

Read more on HuffPost World.

08/23/2012 10:56 AM EDT

Al Aan-Reporter Jenan Moussa Tweets:

@ jenanmoussa :

Graphic. We saw in a mosque in #Syria these 4 children staring at dead body. Pic by @HaraldDoornbos: #warsucks @akhbar