BEIRUT -- As Syrian troops and rebel reinforcements converged on the northern city of Aleppo, a pro-government newspaper warned that the “mother of all battles” was looming for the nation’s commercial capital.
The provocative headline was splashed on the front page of Al Watan newspaper Thursday evening. The paper, like most Syrian media outlets, is loyal to the government of President Bashar Assad.
Western capitals, meanwhile, warned that a massacre could be awaiting Syria’s most populous city, where columns of government tanks were reported to be readying an assault on insurgents who have seized various neighborhoods.
Inside Aleppo, opposition activists Friday reported renewed shelling of rebel-held districts, including the Salahuddin and Firdous areas. Clashes reached the edges of historic Sadullah bin Jabri Square, previous venue of huge pro-Assad rallies, said one opposition activist.
Despite the violence, traditional Friday protests against the government reportedly went ahead in many parts of Aleppo.
In Washington, Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, voiced fears that a “massacre” would unfold in Aleppo, some 200 miles north of Damascus, the capital.
“This is another desperate attempt by a regime that is going down to try and maintain control,” she told reporters.
In Paris, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman declared that Syrian forces were preparing to carry out a "slaughter" in the city of more than 2 million.
Similar concerns emanated from Western capitals back in March 2011 as the mechanized forces of the late strongman Moammar Kadafi approached the eastern Libya city of Benghazi, the capital of a burgeoning anti-Kadafi uprising. Back then, fear of a massacre prompted a Western-led aerial attack that smashed Kadafi’s armored columns on a desert highway outside town. The airstrikes kept Benghazi in rebel hands, consolidated their hold on eastern Libya and likely salvaged the Libyan rebellion that eventually toppled Kadafi.
Rebel commanders have said they would like to establish a Benghazi-style safe haven in northern Syria, with Aleppo as the nerve center.
But there is no sign of imminent foreign intervention in Aleppo — a city that, until recently, had been spared much of the unrest and violence raging elsewhere in Syria. The city has long been regarded as a bastion of support for Assad. Many residents still back the president.
But Syria’s “second city” now stands fully engaged in what some say could be a decisive moment in the more than 16-month uprising against Assad. Thousands of residents are reported to have fled the city. A member of the Syrian parliament from Aleppo was reported to have defected.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed alarm about the threat to civilians.
In a statement Friday, Pillay cited unconfirmed reports of atrocities in Damascus, where authorities have been carrying out a mopping-up operation after putting down uprisings in several neighborhoods. The opposition has reported extrajudicial killings of suspected rebel sympathizers in the Qaboun and Mezze districts.
“All this, taken along with the reported buildup of forces in and around Aleppo, bodes ill for the people of that city,” Pillay said.
She cited a "a discernible pattern” that Assad’s forces employ to clear opposition-held districts, beginning with shelling and tank fire, followed by ground attack and door-to-door searches. It is a classic military approach.
"Civilians and civilian objects -- including homes and other property, businesses, schools and places of worship -- must be protected at all times,” the U.N. human rights chief said “All parties ... must ensure that they distinguish between civilian and military targets.”
-- Alexandra Sandels and Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Syrians leave the center of Aleppo on Thursday after shelling by Syrian government forces in the restive northern city. Credit: Bulent Kilic / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.