Mustafa Amin writes from Aleppo: The battle for this city has begun in earnest. The UN says 200,000 civilians have fled the city since Saturday. That is about 8 per cent of the population. The city is swollen because it was regarded as a safe refuge. The tactic of the Syrian Army is to surround it and clear it of civilians. Tanks, heavy artillery and helicopter gunships are being used to destroy rebel strongholds. However tanks and heavy artillery cannot be deployed in the narrow streets and alleyways of the city. Shelling and bombing are the tactics which are being used at present.
The Syrian Army has about 15 divisions at its disposal – about 150,000 men. It has ten special brigades, eight of whom are commandos. Of these there are two which will spearhead the fight on the ground against the insurgents.
The critical question is: whom do the people of Aleppo support? Aleppo is the major commercial city of the country. It is closely linked to Turkey and businessmen move to and fro. Aleppo stayed out of the civil turmoil as long as it could. It is traditionally regarded as the most loyal city, even more loyal than Damascus. This led the regime to invest heavily in the public sector. There are about 100,000 Kurds in north Aleppo and they have not yet decided which side to support. The flood of refugees into the city included fighters who brought their weapons with them.
The region between the Turkish border and Aleppo is controlled by the insurgents. So if they can capture Aleppo they will be able to set up buffer and no fly zones. The insurgents are lightly armed and are no match for the heavily armed Syrian army. They have to use guerrilla tactics and avoid a confrontation with large numbers of troops. This means that support of the local population is critical. They need safe havens and logistical support. Which side are the merchants and other members of the middle class on? It is impossible to say at present. They know that Turkey supports the insurgents. What about the rest of the population? Will a conflict between those who support Bashar al Assad and those who oppose him erupt in Aleppo? One can be sure that Syrian intelligence officers are trying to foment such a confrontation.
The flood of refugees abandoning Aleppo may be the forerunner of a vast exodus. Where will they head for? Damascus is now too dangerous with fighting going on in the streets. The likely destination is Turkey. There are an estimated 43,000 Syrian refugees already in Turkey. How many more can it accept? Those with wealth or family connections will not be a burden to the Turkish economy.
Turkey has still not decided how to respond to the shooting down of a Turkish Phantom jetfighter. The Adana agreement permits it to penetrate Syrian territory if it judges its security to be under threat. Ankara would like a Sunni ruled Syria.
If Aleppo falls to the insurgents, few would bet that the Bashar al Assad regime can survive. Hence the battle for the leading commercial centre is an existential one for the President and his supporters. Expect a lot of blood to flow.