Syria sent thousands of troops surging towards Aleppo in the early hours of Wednesday, where its forces have been pounding rebel fighters from the air, engulfing the country’s largest city in total warfare to put down a revolt.
Recent days have seen Syria’s 16-month-old uprising transformed from an insurgency in remote provinces into a battle for control of the two main cities, Aleppo and the slightly smaller capital, Damascus, where fighting exploded last week.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have launched massive counter assaults in the two cities. They appear to have beaten rebels back from neighborhoods in the capital and are turning towards Aleppo, a commercial hub in the north.
Syrian forces fired artillery and rocket barrages early on Wednesday at the northern Damascus suburb of al-Tel in an attempt to seize the town from rebels, causing mass panic and forcing hundreds of families to flee the area, residents and opposition activists said.
The 216th mechanized battalion headquartered near Tel started bombarding the town of about 100,000 people at 3:15 a.m. (0015 GMT) and initial reports indicated residential apartment blocks were being hit, they said.
“Military helicopters are flying now over the town. People were awakened by the sound of explosions and are running away,” Rafe Alam, one of the activists, said by phone from a hill overlooking Tel. “Electricity and telephones have been cut off.”
“A large number of troops is being redeployed from Jabal al-Zawiya to Aleppo, which is strategically more important for the regime than Idlib,” the rebel Free Syrian Army’s Military Council spokesman in Aleppo told AFP via Skype.
The FSA’s Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi said he believed the reinforcements were being sent because of the intensity of clashes in Aleppo, where several districts were “liberated’ on Monday.
Rebels attacked the rear of the troops withdrawing from the region at the villages of Orom al-Joz and rami near the main Aleppo-Latakia road and at the village of al-Bara west of the Aleppo-Damascus highway, activist Abdul Rahman Bakran said from the area.
Meanwhile, around three people have been killed and up to 40 others injured in the central prison of Homs, which is being enfolded by the Syrian regime troops for days, activists told Al Arabiya. The Syrian forces shot at prisoners and used tear bombs, causing numerous fires inside and outside the prison. The prison has been witnessing a mutiny, during which four prisoners and a child were killed over the past few days.
Fifteen people had been killed by the Syrian forces in an equivalent mutiny in al-Maslamiya prison in Aleppo on Sunday night.
As many as 150 people have been killed by the fire of Syrian forces across the country. A new massacre was committed this time in al-Shareea village in Hama, activists at the Local Coordination Committees told Al Arabiya. The Syrian troops stormed the victims as they finished their Sunset prayers and were coming out of the mosque on Tuesday, killing at least 30 people, activists said, pointing out that dead bodies were sees in the streets surrounding the mosque.
In Aleppo, helicopters swirled overhead firing missiles throughout Tuesday, residents said. Rebels were battling government forces by the gates of the historic old city. Troops fired mortars and shells at rebels armed with rifles and machineguns.
“I heard at least 20 rockets fired, I think from helicopters, and also a lot of machinegun fire,” a resident near one of the areas being shelled, who asked to be identified only by his first name Omar, told Reuters by telephone.
“Almost everyone has fled in panic, even my family. I have stayed to try to stop the looters; we hear they often come after an area is shelled.”
Residents said fixed-wing jets had also flown over the city, followed by loud noises, although there were contradictory reports as to whether they had fired.
Some residents said they believed the planes had dropped bombs, but others said booming sounds could have been caused by supersonic jets breaking the sound barrier. A correspondent for Britain’s BBC television said the jets had fired.
Assad’s forces have occasionally launched air strikes from fixed-wing jets on other cities during the uprising, but tend to rely on helicopters for air strikes in urban areas.
The 16-month-old uprising has entered a new and far more violent phase in the past 10 days since rebels poured into Damascus in large numbers.
Last Wednesday, an explosion killed four members of Assad’s closest circle inside a security headquarters, a blow that wiped out much of the top echelon of his military command structure and shattered the reputation for invulnerability that his family has held since his father seized power in a 1970 coup.
Western powers have been calling for Assad to be removed from power for many months, and now say they believe his days are numbered. But they fear that he will fight to the bitter end, raising the risk of sectarian warfare spreading across one of the world's most volatile regions.
Syria raised the alarm even further on Monday by confirming that it had chemical and biological weapons. In a statement that may have been intended to reassure the world but seemed to have the opposite effect, it said it would not use poison gas against rebels, only against external threats.
Assad’s international protector Russia added its voice on Tuesday to those of Western countries warning him not to use chemical weapons. Western diplomats said Russia may have pressed Syria to make Monday’s statement after the United States and Israel openly discussed their worries about chemical weapons.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the world would hold Assad and his entourage accountable “should they make the tragic mistake of using those (chemical) weapons.”
In Damascus, troops were trying to snuff out rebel resistance in several areas, including Barzeh, near the center, and the southern districts of Hajar al-Aswad, Asali and Qadam.
Tanks prowled the streets of Midan, a neighborhood recaptured by the army from rebels on Friday.
Assad reshuffled his security team on Tuesday, according to a Lebanese security source. He said Ali Mamlouk had been named intelligence chief in place of Hisham Bekhtyar, one of four top Assad security aides killed in last week’s blast.
Israel, which has publicly discussed military action to keep Syrian chemical arms or missiles out the hands of Assad’s Lebanese militant allies Hezbollah, said there was no sign any such diversion had occurred.
The ferocity of the Syria conflict has only worsened, with 1,261 people killed since fighting intensified in Damascus on July 15, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which compiles reports from anti-Assad activists.
That made last week by far the bloodiest in an uprising in which activists say at least 19,000 people have been killed.
Civilians are suffering, with three-quarters of medical facilities in Damascus closed and displaced people sheltering in schools or parks, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said.
A UNHCR spokeswoman said that the number of displaced people within Syria had risen to about 1.5 million.