Syrian aircraft bomb Aleppo as rebels fight for city

July 25, 2012

By Babak Dehghanpisheh, Washington Post

BEIRUT — Syrian warplanes bombed the nation’s largest city Tuesday, activists said, a dramatic escalation in the 16-month-uprising and a stark sign of the government’s growing desperation as it tries to reverse the recent momentum of rebel forces.

Aleppo, like Damascus, the Syrian capital, had long been seen as a stronghold of support for President Bashar al-Assad. But the unrest has spread to the city, Syria’s commercial capital, in recent days, adding to a sense that the regime is losing control after the assassinations last week of four of its top security officials in a bombing.

Tuesday’s aerial bombing of Aleppo, the first of its kind in the conflict, was part of a coordinated assault by government forces that included heavy artillery shelling and rockets launched from military helicopters. The attacks targeted Tariq Bab, a residential area east of Aleppo, as well as the neighborhoods of Sakhour and Masaken Hanano in Aleppo, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network.

Although helicopter gunships have been used in the past, the government’s decision to deploy fixed-wing aircraft appeared to be an effort to intimidate the rebel forces by signaling that the regime had yet to use its full military arsenal. Syria has one of the largest air forces in the Middle East, and its use in battling the rebels could give the government a critical advantage over a rebel force that has struggled to acquire heavy weapons.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that despite Tuesday’s massive assault, rebel fighters have been gaining control of swaths of territory and are establishing “a safe haven” within the country. She also called on the opposition to begin working on “interim governing entities” and to pledge to protect the rights of all Syrians.

Clinton urged the Syrian rebels to safeguard the regime’s chemical and biological weapons. After recent reports that the government has been moving its vast stockpiles of sarin, mustard gas and VX nerve gas, there has been growing speculation that the military might use chemical weapons against the rebels. In a news conference Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the Syrian military’s stocks of chemical and biological weapons would be used only against external enemies.

A BBC reporter who was on the outskirts of Aleppo at the time of Tuesday’s assault reported seeing what appeared to be Russian-made MiG fighter jets streaking across the sky. “We watched as they dropped in, bombing and strafing rebel positions,” Ian Pannell wrote in an online account of the attack. “Dead and wounded civilians and fighters were taken to hospitals and makeshift clinics as the human cost of this conflict continues to grow.”

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