The struggle for Syria

An ever-lonelier leader

As the battle for Aleppo rages, one of the government’s main men jumps ship

 Hijab unveils himself to the rebels

WITH diplomacy ruled out for the moment and the pace of destruction accelerating, Syria’s civil war is still heading towards a bloody denouement. More people died in July alone than in the first nine months of strife. President Bashar Assad had promised that the battle for Aleppo, the city of 2.5m people that is the country’s commercial capital, would be decisive.

Yet despite a build-up of crack government troops backed by artillery, tanks, helicopters and fighter aircraft, some 7,000 ill-armed rebels still control half the city’s periphery and most of its centre, three weeks after seizing them. The army has blasted residential areas, driving out their inhabitants, but has so far refrained from a full-scale ground assault. This reticence may reflect a fear of losses among already demoralised troops, wary of being trapped with heavy equipment in the ancient city’s warren of streets.

The Tawhid (Unity) Brigade, an amalgam of local rebel groups, has inflicted painful attrition against government armour, using rocket-propelled grenades and home-made bombs. Despite shortages of fuel and food, the militiamen seem determined to fight on. Some reports suggest they have acquired shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles, which could sharply tilt the balance. Meanwhile, the diversion of army forces to Aleppo has enabled the rebels to strengthen their grip elsewhere (see article). Army convoys supplying Aleppo have come under repeated rebel attack.

Elsewhere in Syria, a grim tit-for-tat of pinprick rebel assaults and indiscriminate retaliatory bombardment continues. One of the worst-hit areas recently has been Deraa, in the south. Locals say the shelling became fiercer after Riyad Hijab, the prime minister appointed by Mr Assad in June, defected along with his extended family through besieged Deraa to safety in neighbouring Jordan earlier this month. The flight of Mr Hijab from what he now calls Syria’s “terrorist, murderous regime” is the worst such setback for Mr Assad so far, and may augur a speedier exit of officials, particularly Sunni ones, thus exposing the sectarian core of the regime dominated by the minority Alawite sect. Some 30 generals, nearly all Sunnis, have defected.

Mr Assad may have drawn some comfort from a visit by Saeed Jalili, Iran’s security chief, on August 7th, who said the two countries’ “resistance axis” was unbreakable. Yet his visit reflected fear for the fate of 48 Iranians captured earlier this month by rebels who accused them of being Revolutionary Guards while travelling in a bus on the outskirts of Damascus.


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