Rebel forces are fighting to hold their ground in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, as the army launches a new assault against their positions. Iran, Syria's only regional ally, has thrown its full support behind Damascus.
The Syrian military launched a fresh offensive against rebels in the embattled commercial hub of Aleppo on Wednesday, in a bid to flush the armed opposition out of its stronghold in the southern Salaheddine district.
A Syrian security official told the AFP news agency that the army planned to break the rebel front by splitting their lines in two.
"The army is advancing from west to east to cut Salaheddine in half horizontally," the official said on the condition of anonymity. "It will not take a long time to control the district, even if there are some pockets of resistance remaining."
Syrian state television also reported that an offensive was under way in Salaheddine. A rebel commander confirmed the reports to AFP.
"The regime forces advanced into Al-Malaab Street with tanks and armored vehicles and fierce fighting is now taking place in the area," said Wassel Ayub, a commander in the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Rebels fight to hold ground
Ayub estimated that the Assad regime's "army is present in less than 15 percent of Salaheddine." Reuters news agency, meanwhile, has reported that the rebels have withdrawn from at least one position in the district. Some rebels played down such reports, claiming that they still had the upper hand.
"We did not withdraw, our guys are still there and the situation is in our favor," Abu Firas, a member of the FSA, told Reuters. "We just left a building that we had in one of the streets but it's not like we are retreating."
Regime forces have been reportedly massing soldiers near Aleppo, Syria's largest city, in preparation for a battle that President Bashar Assad has said "will decide the fate of our people." The regime claims to have already cleared the capital, Damascus, of rebel forces.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 240 people had been killed in violence across Syria on Tuesday.
Iran pledges support to Syria
On Tuesday, Assad met with Iranian official Saeed Jalili, who heads the Islamic Republic's Supreme National Security Council. Jalili, a close aide to Surpeme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni, pledged Tehran's full support to the Assad regime.
"Iran will not allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way," the Syrian state news agency SANA quoted Jalili as saying. The "axis of resistance" refers to an allegiance between Iran, Syria, and the Hezbollah movement of Lebanon's Shiites.
Meanwhile, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi confirmed on Wednesday that some of the 48 pilgrims captured by Syrian rebels over the weekend were former members of the Revolutionary Guard. But Salehi denied that they were in Syria to support the regime, maintaining that they were simply pilgrims.
Rebels have accused Iran of meddling in Syria's civil war to help President Assad put down the 17-month-long uprising.
slk/tj (AFP, Reuters)