BEIRUT -- Fierce fighting was reported in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Tuesday as rebels said their forces were pushing toward the center of the nation’s business and financial hub.
As the embattled government has exerted renewed control of the capital, Damascus — site of almost a week of recent battles — the focus of fighting in Syria has shifted to the historic northern city, home to about 2 million people.
For months, Syria's two principal cities had been relatively insulated from the fighting raging in strife-ridden provinces. In the last 10 days, however, rebel forces have mounted concerted attacks in both cities.
With dusk nearing Tuesday, there were reports that government forces in Aleppo had used warplanes to fire rockets at rebel positions in the insurgent-controlled districts of Sakhoor and Tareeq al Bab.
The use of fixed-wing aircraft, if confirmed, would represent a significant escalation in the government’s efforts to put down the more than 16-month rebellion against President Bashar Assad.
Although security forces have often employed helicopter gunships, there had been no confirmed use to date of the military’s substantial fleet of fix-wing aircraft, capable of bombing and strafing runs.
Opposition activists said fighting was nearing Aleppo's historic old city, and that the government was using artillery and helicopters, as well as fixed-wing aircraft. There were reports of dozens of injured people in field hospitals including civilians caught up in the fighting.
The opposition also reported that authorities had put down a revolt at a prison in Aleppo, leaving more than a dozen people dead.
It was impossible to confirm the extent of the fighting amid conflicting and fragmentary reports from the two sides.
The official Syrian state news service said authorities in Aleppo had inflicted “heavy losses” on “terrorists,” the official label for the armed opposition. Many rebels gave up and surrendered their weapons to government forces, the news agency said.
Aleppo, more than 200 miles north of Damascus, sits relatively close to the Turkish border, an area where rebels have gained control of wide swaths of territory and several border crossings. The border area of Turkey has also become an important logistics and supply zone for the Syrian opposition. Rebel strategists say supply lines into Aleppo are more reliable than those into heavily defended Damascus.
Rebel commanders say their intent is to seize the city and consolidate control of much of northern Syrian as a “liberated” area. But whether taking Aleppo was a realistic goal remained unclear. The armed opposition has called on units in the region to join the offensive.
The government has fought tenaciously to ensure that the opposition does not exert long-term control of urban zones. Authorities have been determined to deny the rebels a haven from which to operate.
Government forces enjoy a tremendous advantage in firepower, including armored vehicles, tanks, artillery and aircraft. That edge has allowed the military to oust rebels from other contested zones, including the central cities of Homs and Hama. On some occasions, government forces have withdrawn from rebel-held districts and resorted to pounding them with artillery and tank shells, forcing insurgents out. Whether a similar scenario would unfold in Aleppo was unclear.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Syrian rebels flash victory signs on a tank near Aleppo on Tuesday. Credit: Sinan Gul / European Pressphoto Agency