Battle For Syria's Largest City Draws Closer

Syrian troops and anti-government rebels are gearing up for what could be a decisive battle for the country's commercial center. Government tanks and helicopter gunships are bombarding parts of Aleppo where the rebels are firmly entrenched. So far, government forces have not moved to re-take the city but analysts fear an offensive is imminent.

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A battle for Syria's largest city appears to be drawing closer. After nearly a week of fighting in the streets of Aleppo, both government and rebel forces are arming and reinforcing their ranks for a decisive showdown. Aleppo has two and a half million residents.

And as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beirut, there are worries that civilian casualties could be heavy.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Government troops bombarded Free Syrian Army positions in and around the city, while rebels attacked government checkpoints in an attempt to enlarge and connect areas already under their control.

Yasser Najjar is an activist with the Syrian National Council, a coalition of groups opposed to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Speaking from Aleppo, Najjar estimated that the government had massed around a hundred tanks for a major offensive. But he said that concerns about demoralized government troops defecting to the rebels were delaying the assault.

YASSAR NAJJAR: (Through Translator) Government army commanders are afraid that tank crews may be from areas sympathetic to the revolution and may easily defect to the rebels. The army commanders are waiting for reinforcements who are completely loyal to the regime.

KUHN: Rebel commanders say they now have some anti-aircraft weapons, which could offset the government's control of the skies. Najjar says that on the streets of Aleppo the rebels will have the advantage.

NAJJAR: (Through Translator) I'm sure that our fighters can win even with their limited ammunition. The government troops are used to fighting out in the open. They are inexperienced at urban guerrilla warfare. Our men have been fighting hit-and-run battles since last year and they are the sons of the city.

KUHN: Aleppo is one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities. It's also an economic hub the government can hardly afford to lose. For the rebels, it's strategically located near the border with Turkey, which is sheltering Free Syrian Army fighters and defectors from the Syrian government. The most recent of these was Ikhlas al-Badawi, a lawmaker from Aleppo and member of the ruling Ba'ath Party.

On Thursday, Badawi defected to Turkey, where she urged fellow lawmakers to join her.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beirut.

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