BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian forces have intensified their firepower against a rebel challenge in Aleppo with activists reporting attack helicopters and fighter jets strafing opposition targets as well as artillery bombardments of several neighborhoods.
Local activist Mohammed Saeed said there were clashes overnight that stretched into a sixth day on Thursday in parts of the city of 3 million, Syria’s commercial hub. On Wednesday and Thursday, he said government forces have relied more heavily on intense firepower from the air.
“Regime forces have been randomly shelling neighborhoods and the civilians are terrified,” he told The Associated Press via Skype.
Syria’s regime has suffered a series of setbacks over the past few weeks with an attack on President Bashar Assad’s top security team that killed four members of his inner circle, a number of high-level defections and challenges from rebels in Damascus and Aleppo that the military has struggled to put down.
The White House said Wednesday that the use of heavy weapons in Aleppo showed “the depth of depravity” of Assad’s regime. Spokesman Jay Carney said Syrian forces were perpetrating “heinous violence” against civilians in the city.
Activists in Aleppo said they fear the worst may yet be to come, with reports the military is rushing in reinforcements, including dozens of tanks, to try to retake the city.
“The government reinforcements have yet to arrive,” said Saeed, amid reports that the fighting had spread to neighborhoods close to the center of the city, which has a medieval core that is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Last week, Syrian troops used a similar combination of artillery bombardments and overwhelming ground force to quash the rebel assault on Damascus. Even though the government forces far outgun the rebels, it took them a week to get the assault under control in a sign that the opposition’s capabilities are improving.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting and shelling in Aleppo killed 26 people on Wednesday, including many children. A total of 160 died throughout the country, where fighting continues in the cities of Hama, Homs, Daraa and Deir al-Zour.
The clashes across the country have made July the bloodiest month so far in the uprising against Assad’s regime that began peacefully in March 2011. With death tolls estimated at well over 100 people a day, it has become as bad as Iraq when it was in the depths of a sectarian civil war in 2006. Activists say 19,000 have been killed since the uprising began.
Syria’s deputy prime minister, Omar Ibrahim Ghalawanji, evoked a strong pledge of support from Syria’s remaining ally in the Middle East, Iran, during a visit Thursday.
Iran’s vice president in charge of international affairs, Ali Saeedlou said: “Tehran is ready to give its experience and capabilities to its friend and brother nation of Syria,” according to the state news agency. He did not elaborate.