BEIRUT – Syrian rebels on Thursday bombarded a military air base in Aleppo using a tank captured from government troops as activists reported that the regime has unleashed new raids against opposition fighters near the capital Damascus, killing dozens.
The Aleppo report was one of the first indications the rebels are starting to deploy the heavy weapons they've managed to capture in the past weeks from the Syrian army. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebel-seized tank shelled the Menagh military airport outside Aleppo, which the regime has used to launch attacks on rebel positions in the surrounding area.
The report represents an escalation in the battles between the two sides, since up to this point, rebel forces have suffered from the huge disparity in armaments with Syria's well-armed military that also has fighter jets and helicopter gunships at its disposal.
Rebel forces in northern Syria attacked the country's largest city of Aleppo two weeks ago and have captured several neighborhoods, mostly lower income areas on the periphery, which they have since held despite ground and air assaults by the government.
Residents reported Thursday that Internet and mobile phones were barely working since the night before, which has raised fears of an imminent government onslaught on Aleppo. But by early afternoon Thursday, there were only the daily, low level clashes around the rebel bastion of Salaheddine and shelling, a resident going by the name of Abu Adel told The Associated Press.
With its proximity to rebel-friendly Turkey just to the north, Aleppo has enormous strategic importance to the opposition and if the rebels were able to capture and hold it, the city could form the kernel of a wider rebel-controlled zone.
"If Aleppo falls, then automatically we are going to establish headquarters at the presidential palace," said Burhan Ghalioun, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, late Wednesday in Paris. "There will be nothing more that will stand in the way of the Free Syrian Army. Hama, Homs to the outskirts of Damascus have in large part been liberated."
The Syrian army, however, still has many more tanks and armored vehicles than the rebels and there was no indication that Thursday's attack on the airbase was particularly effective. Later, a nearby village was shelled by government forces out of that same airbase.
There was also heavy shelling earlier in the day around the town of Azaz on the Turkish border, which has been in rebel hands for weeks along with a checkpoint crossing in the area, making it easier to deliver rebel weapons and supplies to the Aleppo battle. It would be a huge blow to the opposition if the government retook the crossing.
In the capital Damascus, the regime on Thursday announced a string of raids against rebels in neighborhoods on the southern edge of the city the night before, killing and arresting "a number of terrorists," as the government refers to rebels.
Operations also took place in the well to do Muhajireen district on Thursday close to the presidential palace in Damascus and 20 people were arrested, according to activist Abu Qais, based in the Syrian capital.
A bold rebel assault on Damascus was crushed two weeks ago in fierce fighting, but the latest raids show that pockets of resistance remain in the capital and the surrounding countryside.
Abu Qais said that at least 20 people were killed by raids in the Yalda suburb, in the south, while the Observatory reported that 47 people had been killed in the Jdaidat Artouz neighborhood to the southwest. Videos from Wednesday posted by activists show piles of bloody corpses, many with visible bullet holes. The videos could not be independently authenticated.
There has been a growing chorus of international condemnation of Syria's handling of the 17-month uprising, which activists estimate has taken 19,000 lives.
A vote is set for Friday in the U.N. General Assembly on a resolution drafted by Arab League countries, telling Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down and turn over power to a transitional government.
While the 193-member General Assembly has no legal mechanism for enforcing a resolution, an overwhelming vote can carry moral and symbolic power.
The U.N. World Food Program, meanwhile, sounded the alarm Thursday over the humanitarian situation in Syria with close to 3 million people needing food and livestock assistance in the next 12 months -- more than 10 percent of the country's population of 22 million.
The study carried out by the WFP as well as the Syrian Agricultural Ministry said the country's agricultural sector has lost $1.8 billion this year from damaged crops and livestock. It's not just the fighting that has kept farmers from their harvest but also shortages in fuel, electricity and labor to work the farms.
The statement warned that the country's poorest would be the hardest hit.