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World

'Assad's soldiers are in shock'

Kurt Pelda is one of a handful of foreign journalists in Aleppo, Syria, where government forces and rebels are engaged in heavy fighting. He believes the final battle for control of Syria has begun.

DW: Mr. Pelda, you are currently in Aleppo. How is the situation in this embattled city?

Kurt Pelda: The intensity of the fighting has increased and the air attacks, in particular, are horrible. Combat helicopters and helicopter gunships are flying over the city most of the day, and now during a large part of the night as well. About an hour ago, a bomber tried to bomb a school around the corner. The rebels had converted it into a military headquarters. But the bomb missed the school and hit a house, killing 14 civilians, including women and children.

On Monday, Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab announced his resignation. He said he was defecting from the "terrorist, murderous regime" of Syrian President Bashar Assad to join the "freedom and dignity revolution." What do think of this decision? Was it driven by moral insight or political opportunism?

Syria's former agriculture minister Riyad Hijab (REUTERS/SANA/Handout)

Hijab's defection strengthened views Assad's regime is crumbling

I don't know the man personally, so it's difficult for me to assess his decision. Whoever changes sides so late in a war can certainly be accused of opportunism. Nevertheless, Hijab is the most prominent defector since General Manaff Tlass, who recently switched sides. His defection is a shock for the regime and its supporters. People here in Aleppo are cheering. They see the rats abandoning the sinking ship.

A key question is whether this defection will have any impact on the major offensive currently underway in Aleppo. What's important now is for the generals in command to throw in the towel, too. The defections could certainly be why the long-promised major assault has yet to happen. But one thing is certain: The final battle in Syria has begun. It may drag on for weeks or even months, but I don't believe there will be a return to former times.

Some say senior government employees will find it difficult to defect because their relatives could be taken hostage. Is that a possible reason why Hijab's defection supposedly took several months to prepare?

SANA TV station (SANA/AP/dapd)

A Syrian government TV station in Damascus has been bombed

I know little about the other side of the front. But it's quite clear Hijab's long preparations involved bringing his family to Jordan. And if my information is correct, he brought most, if not all, of his family there. How he managed this and whom he bribed are questions we'll be able answer in the following days or weeks. But the threat of relatives and friends of potential defectors being held hostage is an important reason why more people haven't switched sides.

At the moment, you could get the impression the Assad regime is losing more and more control of Syria. How would you explain this loss of power? Does the answer lie in the economy and the military? Or are moral reasons at work?

I would say a major reason for the regime's weakness is soldier morale. Some history is involved in the fighting over Aleppo. Assad's troops were forced to completely retreat from the northern region along the Turkish border, and the rebels destroyed some of his other units. The main weapons used by the rebels in those battles - as in the fighting in Aleppo - were homemade bombs, booby traps and mines used to destroy government army tanks.

That was a shock for the soldiers and officers back then, and it is a shock for them now during the Aleppo offensive. Although Assad has a large army, he can only trust a few units. His troops are also extremely scattered, being deployed in various conflict zones. The rebels made some clever moves by attacking Damascus as well as Homs, Hama and now Aleppo. The army is bogged down. It has too few soldiers and too many cities and areas to control.

What's your impression of the opposition forces? The word is most of them are highly Islamic.

Free Syrian Army fighter (REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)

A Syrian opposition fighter takes a break from the intense fighting

It's encouraging to observe certain local government structures in Aleppo and the rural areas around the city. There are courts that apply Sharia law, but at least there is a rudimentary form of justice. There are also some authorities, like the one handling municipal waste. Reconstruction is already underway in some rural areas. So local structures are forming. The problem is there's still no national structure.

How do you see preparations shaping up for the period after Assad?

One problem in particular stands out. The Syrian National Council only unites exiled politicians living abroad. The people with real sway are fighting here in the country. So the question is whether the Syrians doing the fighting will have enough of a say in the transitional government that is supposedly being formed. Only then can there be a national transitional government worthy of the name.

Kurt Pelda is a freelance journalist who covers the Middle East. He is currently in Aleppo.

Interview: Kersten Knipp

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