Assad's tanks roll in as Russians warn of tragedy

Another massacre looms as government forces bombard rebel-held city

Syrian government tanks backed by attack helicopters launched an assault yesterday to regain control of Aleppo, the country's second city, after rebels seized several areas. The fight for the city, a major commercial centre, raised fears among activists and the international community that a fresh massacre was likely within days.

Russia, Syria's longtime ally, added to an international chorus of alarm warning that a "tragedy" was imminent in Aleppo. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, said it was unrealistic to expect the Syrian army to stand by while rebels were trying to take over major cities. Mr Lavrov also said that Moscow was "not thinking about" granting Syria's President Assad asylum.

Fighting centred around the south-western neighbourhood of Salaheddine, one of the first areas seized by the rebels after they were routed from the capital, Damascus. Activists said helicopters strafed the area and rebels faced artillery barrages and tanks.

Mohammed Saeed, an Aleppo-based activist, said the government counterattack had begun and rebels were fighting back. "Thanks be to God, they haven't succeeded in entering any of the neighbourhoods yet," he said.

Though Western media is largely unable to gain access to the areas held by rebels, the BBC reported a heavily artillery bombardment could be heard throughout Aleppo, and there were reports of heavy casualties.

An emergency call went out to doctors to help. It said there had been constant shelling and mortar rounds all day, together with weapons fire from helicopters. A steady stream of vehicles has been heading out of the city carrying hundreds of families trying to escape the violence and deteriorating conditions.

President Bashar al-Assad's forces are massed outside the city. Mr Saeed said rebels from around the country have also been pouring in to help defend the areas under their control. "About 1,000 fighters have come from the Free Syrian Army from outside the province to help," he said.

State television reported that government forces had inflicted heavy losses on groups of terrorists, the term the regime uses for the rebels. The pro-government daily newspaper Al-Watan called it "the mother of all battles".

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said the government attack started before dawn with the bombardment of several areas, followed by the movement of armoured vehicles backed by attack helicopters. Based on reports from contacts on the ground, SOHR reported attacks in the north-eastern area of Sakhour as well as other areas, and said the rebels had disabled a number of the regime's armoured vehicles.

The international community has expressed growing concern there could be major bloodshed as Syrian troops retake Aleppo. But Western nations and their allies have found themselves powerless to prevent the situation from deteriorating despite a series of diplomatic efforts, including a ceasefire agreement that didn't take effect.

"The regime's destruction of its own city shows the level of oppression that has been reached in Syria," said the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking yesterday. "We will do our best to stop this oppression," he said.

Defending the regime in Damascus, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: "Now the city of Aleppo is occupied by the armed opposition; another tragedy is imminent there," he said.

"How can it be hoped that in such a situation the government will simply give in, say, 'OK, I wasn't right, overthrow me, change the regime'? It's simply unrealistic."

Russia has been a key source of support for Syria, although Moscow officials have said in recent months they are simply taking a more even-handed approach while the West offers blind support to the rebels.

It has been a difficult two weeks for the Syrian government with rebel assaults first on the capital, Damascus, then on Aleppo, as well as several high-profile defections and a bomb that killed four top security officials.

The regime, however, launched a swift counter-offensive and quashed the assault on the capital with a combination of heavy weapons and house-to-house searches. Scores of people were killed. Opposition activists said they expected similar tactics in the coming days to keep Aleppo from falling into rebel hands.

With a population of about three million, Aleppo is Syria's commercial hub, a key pillar of support for Assad's regime. The rebels are outgunned by the Syrian forces, making it difficult for them to hold any territory for long. They risk being annihilated by Assad's superior firepower and may yet decide to withdraw to preserve their forces. Their run on Damascus and Aleppo, however, suggests they could be gaining in power and organisation.

Saudi Arabia and other nations have spoken positively of arming the rebels, though no country is known to be doing so. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced a national campaign to collect money for "our brothers in Syria" on 22 July, and yesterday it was reported Saudi donations now totalled more than $72m (£45m).

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence