BEIRUT — The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to be taking a relatively restrained approach to the rebel presence in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where fighting was reported to be continuing Tuesday, even as Syrian government media claimed to have pushed the rebels out of a key neighborhood.
“We haven’t seen the sort of intense shelling we’ve seen in other parts of the country,” said a Beirut-based researcher for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, who agreed to discuss what she and other investigators were hearing about the battle inside the city only on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns. “I think the government recognizes it has a lot of support in Aleppo.”
The researcher said the government’s reaction to rebel infiltration of Aleppo, a city of more than 2 million only 30 miles from the border with Turkey, was in stark contrast to the Syrian military’s weeks-long targeting of rebel-occupied neighborhoods in Homs, the country’s third-largest city and a bastion of anti-Assad sentiment.
“Compared to Homs, where we had indiscriminate shelling on the level of crimes against humanity, they are showing restraint,” the researcher said.
Casualty figures released by anti-Assad groups also suggest that while a pitched battle had been expected for Aleppo, the conflict there is being outpaced by fighting elsewhere in the country. On Monday, according to the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights, 23 people were killed in Aleppo, while 55 died in fighting in Damascus and its suburbs.
Aleppo is the country’s commercial and manufacturing hub, but business there has ground to a halt.
“Our workers cannot reach the factories,” said one businessman, who fled Aleppo for Lebanon six days ago with his wife and two children but remains in touch with people still in Aleppo. He asked to be identified only as Ayman for fear of government reprisals.
Factory owners like Ayman, who make up Aleppo’s largely Sunni Muslim upper class, have been considered a crucial base of Assad support in a 16-month-old uprising that is often described as battle between Sunnis and Alawites, the Shiite Muslim sect to which Assad belongs.
Ayman said much of that support is borne of fear. “The government burned more than 60 factories belonging to people who said they supported the revolution when it began,” Ayman said. “It was better to keep quiet.” But he also said he flew to Damascus from Aleppo and then drove to Beirut because he was afraid to cross areas that are controlled by the rebels.
“Either side might have kidnapped me,” he said, adding that in past months, Aleppo’s business community had become the target of groups on both sides who kidnapped for money or political reasons, as well as criminals.
“On the drive to the airport, we didn’t see any government forces,” Ayman said. “Only five dead soldiers on the side of the road.”
Ayman said he attempted to shield his children from what was taking place. “When they started to shell outside Aleppo, we told the children it was fireworks,” Ayman said as his two young sons played nearby in the nearly empty lobby of the hotel where the family was staying. “But on the way out, they saw the tanks.”
The lead government unit pressing the Aleppo counteroffensive is the Syrian army’s Fourth Division, a unit commanded by Maher Assad, the president’s younger brother. The rebels have been united under a command that includes Malik al Kurdi, a defected army officer who is part of the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, the Turkey-based umbrella under which most of the rebel groups operate.
Ahmed, an anti-government activist who had been in the Salah al Deen neighborhood on Monday, said the rebels were using the area as a base for hit-and-run attacks against the military in other parts of the city, though the government claimed the neighborhood had been cleared of rebels.
He said he had seen foreigners, including Libyans and Yemenis, among the rebels, but that he was unconcerned about reports they were members of al Qaida-affiliated radical Islamist groups. He said the foreigners didn't insist that he fast, as is the custom during Ramadan, the holy month Muslims are now marking.
“They are professionals in how to make bombs and plant mines in the streets,” he said.