Despatch: Syria's badly armed rebels face President Assad's tanks as the crucial battle for Aleppo begins
A fighter from the Syrian opposition takes aims in Aleppo
Rebel casualties arrive back
The attack had been awaited with growing apprehension for days. But when the Syrian army units that had been massing outside Aleppo finally unleashed a full-scale assault on rebel-held quarters of the ancient city yesterday, it still came as a shock to fighters who had hoped to defend it.
From the moment the first calls to dawn prayer echoed among the bullet-scarred blocks of residential flats where rebels had been ensconced for a week, the sound of exploding shells - a feature of life since they first moved into the area - stepped up dramatically.
Regime troops that had been building up at army bases and mustering points started to push into the heart of the city.
The whizz of bullets could be heard along the rebel lines as Syrian army sniper units attempted to pick off key targets ahead of the armoured advance.
The pro-government daily newspaper Al-Watan called the impending confrontation "the mother of all battles" in a banner headline yesterday morning. As the tanks that had been transported north to Aleppo from Syria's government heartland began to move in on the Salahaddin district in the southwest of the city, spreading panic as casualties rose, it seemed that in this respect at least the regime's mouthpiece might be right.
Throughout the day yesterday many hundreds of ragtag fighters opposed to the continued rule of President Bashar al-Assad were desperately mounting a chaotic last ditch defence of territory they had previously captured on two sides of Aleppo.
The ill-equipped rebels climbed aboard pick-up trucks armed only with assault rifles as they set off to battle. Their firepower was pathetically low; one bearded fighter marched out rebel headquarters with his bullets stuffed into a clear plastic bag no bigger than someone might use for their sandwiches.
Another fighter showed off his Austrian-made Steyr rifle - superior to the Russian-made weapons most familiar in Syria – but then revealed that he had just two bullets left in its magazine.
Rebel headquarters at a school in the heart of the Shakour district emptied as gunmen rushing to the meet the enemy assault just over a mile away. The spirit for the coming battle was high. "All of us want to die if that is God's will. We want to fight for our freedom and are happy with our fate," said Nadim Sabah, who carried a shotgun with its stock cut short.
But soon the first rebel casualties returned: men who had been guarding a checkpoint on the road to the airport, which had been in rebel hands for the past eight days but was now being rolled up by government troops.
According to one of the flustered fighters who returned with their bodies, all of which had multiple bullet wounds, the men - who included a rebel sub-commander - had been shredded by intensive fire from three sides as a squad of Syrian soldiers moved in on them.
By midday residents of the Shakour neighbourhood were cowering from spreading clashes throughout what had previously been a safe haven. Rebels claimed to have destroyed at least eight tanks but dozens more massed outside the city had begun to rumble closer.
At one point a helicopter gunship swung above the Sheikh Nazar school and poured down heavy machine gun fire on a rebel pick-up truck, which just managed to manoeuvre to safety.
The helicopter faced a cacophony of small arms fire from the school playground but remained safely out of their range. "Wasted bullets," muttered one irritated onlooker as the gunship eventually moved away.
Despite their week in control of the parts of the city, it was clear that the rebels neither possessed the kind of arms they would need to repel the full-scale assault, nor had they developed many defensive strongholds that would give focus to an effort to stave off attack.
What is more, there seems little prospect of reinforcements arriving to relieve the rebels. Abu Tawf, one of the leading local commanders, admitted that the original Aleppo takeover had been something of an impromptu affair - planned without direction from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the loose umbrella command for anti-Assad military operations.
Battalion leaders from villages and towns had come together in a Brigade of Unity (Liwa al-Tawhid) to oversee and contribute to the assault, with little or no outside help.
"We made a meeting from all the groups in the countryside and Aleppo and we all decided that we could be more powerful together," the former government official said. "As the Liwa al-Tawhid we made this mission by ourselves. The leaders in Turkey don't plan what we do, we are working on our own missions."
There is talk of help from Islamic fighters said to have been mobilised from abroad, and one report yesterday claimed that several thousand battle-hardened veterans of the Libyan conflict had entered Syria led by a former anti-Gaddafi commander.
But any such influx from abroad could alienate the residents of a prosperous city, proud of its 5,000 year history. The ancient citadel is a World Heritage site, while the modern industries and opulent shopping plazas of its richer quarters had made it one of the most sophisticated urban centres in the modern Levant.
And not everyone here is certain they want the Assad regime overthrown. In a gloomy arcade where all the shops have been closed for a week, a quietly spoken man sidled up to express his rejection of the rebels.
He said he retained faith in Mr Assad, the dynastic leader who has presided over a conflict now estimated to have cost 20,000 lives. "Bashar is good," he said. "These people are bringing us into chaos.
"Aleppo is the economic capital of the country, it is the gateway to Turkey and international trade. Everything is being destroyed by their fighting."
The rebels were welcomed by the city's poorer and largely disenfranchised Sunni Muslims, but its the commercial heart seemed to remain with the government - perhaps aware that its privilege is more likely to be maintained if the Assads survive.
Mustafa Khalil al-Shab, a construction magnate, is one of the few wealthy residents to have backed the uprising in the city, and said he had given most of his fortune to get rid of the regime. A former president of the city's business council, he claimed the wealthy were finally turning against Mr Assad.
"The businessmen are tired of the regime and are quietly coming over to our side," he said. "There is a lot at stake for them but the balance is shifting. Over the last few months the regime has taken money from businessmen to give to the military. The militia is sent to burn the stores of those that do not pay."
Outside Aleppo to the north yesterday, the broad highways that lead towards Turkey remained open but only a slow trickle of residents seemed to be heading away. But to the west, there were reports of panic-stricken civilians crammed inside minivans and cars, the word "shelling" on everyone's lips.
Rumours were rife that the army was intent on encircling the "free" areas, cutting off avenues of future retreat. Left behind were families sheltering from the Syrian army in schools, while others stood on balconies watching the plumes of explosions rise from distant neighbourhoods.
Those who remained will be hoping that the maelstrom that began yesterday will pass quickly and that their homes will not be destroyed in the process
But the days of intense fighting that lie ahead that will determine whether the Assad regime can recover from the stiffest
challenge it has yet faced since the 16 month-long rebellion began.
There is every sign that the government intends to step up the fury of its attack; and regards the opprobrium heaped on it from abroad as a small price to pay for demonstrating that it is still far from finished.