BEIRUT — The battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo intensified Wednesday as UN observers there reported that Syrian jets had fired rockets into contested neighborhoods and that rebels had commandeered tanks and other heavy weapons.
A few hours after President Bashar Assad urged his forces to step up the fight, opposition leaders said they had found dozens of bodies in a suburb of Damascus in the aftermath of the Syrian army’s house-to-house search for rebel fighters and activists. This claim of a new massacre came as the rebels faced severe criticism themselves for what appeared to be their brutal summary execution, one day earlier, of suspected progovernment gunmen on the streets of Aleppo, recorded and uploaded on the Internet.
Videos purported to have been taken in the Damascus suburb, Jdeidit Artouz, showed bodies lined up under bloodstained sheets, as a narrator gave an estimated count that continued rising: 37, 42, and then even more.
“I counted 52 bodies,” said Abu Abdullah, a resident who said he had helped move the dead to a local mosque before burial. “I’m really shocked. Why here?”
The bodies were found near an area where rebels said fighting had flared in the past week. But analysts said the bodies appearing outside Damascus in a town also filled with refugees — along with reports of renewed fighting in the capital and an escalation of combat in Aleppo, Syria’s largest metropolis and commercial epicenter — all suggested that the 17-month conflict was becoming increasingly intense and bitter, with more front lines and more bloodshed.
“It’s a rapid escalation,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Once you start using fixed-wing aircraft and you have a city under full revolt, it’s clear that the Assad regime is not going to stop and is not breaking. We’re entering a new phase of this conflict.”
Aleppo, which had been relatively stable for much of the anti-Assad uprising, is now the site of the most vicious fighting. For nearly two weeks, the Syrian Army has been battling rebel troops for control of the city, and for the first time, the United Nations saidWednesday what rebels had been saying for days: the Syrian Army was using jet fighters in its arsenal of heavy weapons aimed at crushing the opposition. And they are not just flying, as in the past; now, according to the UN monitor mission in Syria and videos showing flashes of light bursting from dark jets, they are firing.
Tabler noted that the Syrian warplanes are not yet dropping bombs. But the calculated escalation to the use of jets seemed to be part of a concerted effort by Assad to rally his supporters by making clear that he would not limit his military effort. In rare published remarks seemingly designed to marshal government forces and dissuade anyone thinking of defecting, he called on Syria’s military to show “more readiness and continued preparations” to confront internal agents seeking to destabilize his battered country, according to the official SANA news agency.
To commemorate the 67th anniversary of the founding of the Syrian Army, he also used his remarks to blame opponents for seeking to keep Syria from “improving our society to the level of developed countries.” And he said Syria’s “battle with the enemy takes multiple forms.”
This week it has become increasingly clear to outside military analysts that the fighting is likely to drag on in Aleppo. Helicopters thwacked overhead Wednesday as clashes broke out around several more police stations, which have become a focal point for rebels seeking to hold neighborhoods or gain ground in new areas.
With the rebels now possessing tanks — UN observers did not have information on how many or where they might be deployed — the conflict seems to be moving ever further away from the six-point plan for peace outlined by Kofi Annan, the special Syria envoy, whose plan seems increasingly irrelevant. Instead of steps toward a cease-fire, both sides appear to be rushing into the breach of civil war.