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Fight For Syria's Big Cities Intensifies


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

A big counterattack is brewing in Syria's most important city after Damascus. Rebel fighters had taken control of parts of Aleppo and say they're still holding on to some areas of the city, but they say heavy reinforcements from the Syrian army are now arriving. Activists also say that in Damascus, loyalist forces have been exacting a bloody revenge, moving through neighborhoods briefly seized by the rebels last week.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is monitoring events from Beirut. He reports that even as Syrians, from soldiers and diplomats, are turning against the regime, the power on the ground remains with the military.

And a warning: This story contains some very graphic descriptions.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Last weekend's call from the rebel Free Syrian Army to take Aleppo seemed to catch the government by surprise, as it focused on Damascus. But it now seems poised for a major counter-assault to drive the opposition out of a crucial economic center.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Allahu akbar.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Allahu akbar.

KENYON: Videos posted yesterday by opposition activists appeared to show fighter jets and attack helicopters in action over rebel-held Aleppo neighborhoods. Opposition fighters continue to call for the Free Syrian Army to press forward into the city, even as thousands of Syrian troops were reported to be heading up from the south to repel them.

As the threat of violence escalated, Turkey closed its borders to commercial traffic, saying it would still allow refugees to cross.

If people in Aleppo needed a reminder of what's likely to follow should the rebels be forced to retreat, grisly videos from parts of Damascus provided one answer.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: In this video, an unidentified cameraman wanders from house to house in the Qaboun neighborhood of the capital, retaken by the Syrian army over the weekend. His voice grows emotional as the camera peers through a darkened window at bodies lying in pools of blood.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Other videos, impossible to verify, showed dead bodies with what appeared to be signs of torture. This cameraman pauses his narration to retch at the carnage he's documenting.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: There were more signs of Syrian insiders abandoning the regime. Syria's ambassador to the UAE defected and fled to Qatar, along with his wife, the charge d'affaires to Cyprus.

Brigadier General Manaf Tlass also surfaced, in a videotaped statement aired on the Al-Arabiya channel. Tlass grew up with Bashar al-Assad, and belongs to one of the most powerful Sunni families in Syria. He confirmed that he did defect from the army, and said people must do the impossible by unifying in preparation for life after the Assad regime.


BRIGADIER GENERAL MANAF TLASS: (Through translator) Our revolution needs to be a revolution against corruption and dictators, but without destroying the social fabric. Our duty as Syrians is also to preserve our institutions. These are institutions of Syrians, and not individuals who sabotage it or discredit it.

KENYON: Analyst Yezid Sayigh at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut says Tlass' defection is important, but he's watching to see if others follow suit.

YEZID SAYIGH: It seems that there are quite a number of regime members - quite high up, though not within the very top inner circle - appear finally to have understood that the regime cannot win militarily. They're starting to look for alternatives.

KENYON: But analysts can offer no clear timeline for how long this process of looking for alternatives to Assad might take. And in the meantime, opposition activists and civilians remain in the firing line.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.