BEIRUT: Syrian rebels in embattled Aleppo tried to maintain morale on Thursday by highlighting small gains in the midst of a withdrawal from the most contested area of the city, as government forces fired on their positions with jets, helicopters, artillery and tanks.
On the second day of a ground offensive that could signal a decisive turn in the battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, rebels said they continued to fight in new neighbourhoods and with new tactics, as the authorities bragged of heavy losses for foes of President Bashar Assad.
Assad, after appearing this week on television for the first time since a bomb killed four members of his inner circle last month, also sought to project an appearance of political control and strength by appointing a new prime minister, Wael Nader al-Halqi, to replace Riyad Farid Hijab, who defected to Jordan this week. SANA, the state news agency, reported the appointment in a brief announcement that did not refer to the defection.
Halqi, 48, had been minister of health, and he is a Sunni Muslim from the southern town of Daraa, where the uprising began with peaceful protests in March 2011. He holds a medical degree from Damascus University, SANA said, and his loyalist credentials include having run the Daraa branch of the governing Baath party.
In Tehran, state television reported the opening on Thursday of a gathering of officials from about 30 countries, including Russia and China, to discuss Syria’s future. Few of the participants seemed to be high-ranking figures – most countries simply sent their ambassadors – but the meeting appeared designed to project an image of Iran as a regional powerbroker after the collapse of efforts by the United Nations and the Arab League.
On the battlefield, the violence intensified amid conflicting claims of progress as both the rebels and the government sought to show any evidence that their side was winning.
The state news agency said that the Syrian Army had made a “decisive attack” just outside Aleppo’s ancient centre, and that an operation in several neighbourhoods had killed dozens of rebel fighters, destroying three pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machineguns.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group in Britain with a contact network in Syria, said that rebels had destroyed several tanks and had killed at least eight soldiers.
The group also described a government ground assault that included hundreds of soldiers in armoured personnel carriers and tanks, as well as loyalist gunners who pounded several areas including the strategic neighbourhood of Salaheddiin, the scene of some of the most sustained and bloody fighting.
Bashir al-Haji, a spokesman for the insurgent Free Syrian Army, said rebel brigades were forced into a tactical withdrawal from much of the neighbourhood early on Thursday, though he insisted that they would keep fighting government troops in other areas of the city.
“We are hopeful that we will be able to resist them,” he said.
A woman from Homs, who would not give her name, said that residents ended up suffering when the rebels moved into a neighbourhood only to depart when the Syrian military entered. “Why do they claim the areas are free and say they’ve liberated them if they know they cannot stand against the regime’s troops and tanks?” she asked.
Propaganda seems to have increased as international interest in the war has grown. And increasingly in recent days, each side has sought to depict the other as sustained by foreign forces.
The rebels claim that Russia and Iran – Assad’s sturdiest allies – have sent advisers, while the state news media insist that rebel ranks are swollen with foreign fighters.
In a report from Aleppo on Thursday, SANA said that the government had “continued purging” Aleppo’s neighbourhoods, including Salaheddiin, of what were called “mercenary terrorists” from the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms backing the rebels.
SANA claimed that “huge numbers” of rebels had been killed or wounded and that other fighting had involved rebel supporters from Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan.