The Battle For Aleppo

Syrian regime forces have converged around the city and begun an assault to expel the rebel fighters who have been amassing there. Many are fearing a large-scale massacre. From Al Jazeera:

According to Free Syrian Army spokesman Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi, some 100 tanks and a large number of military vehicles had arrived outside Aleppo. Troops stationed on the outskirts of the city unleashed barrages of heavy-calibre mortar rounds on the western neighbourhoods of Saladin, al-Sukkari and al-Fardos, while Russian MI-25 helicopter gunships struck al-Sakhour in the east with rockets, several opposition activists in the city said. Rebel fighters targeted army roadblocks and security installations, with both sides avoiding close-quarters warfare in the city of 2.5 million people, Syria's biggest urban centre.

Michael Peel explains the city's significance:

Analysts say Aleppo is in some ways as important a prize as Damascus because of its size, its commercial importance and the prominent merchants and regime linchpins who live there. It would also be crucial to the rebels as a bridgehead for personnel and supplies routed in from the nearby border with Turkey, whose government is a strong opponent of Assad.

Violence continues in many other areas of the country as well, particularly in the cities of Daraa and in Ma'aret Nu'man (just below Aleppo), where the above footage purports to show regime shelling from earlier today. Meanwhile, Reuters has uncovered details about the Turkish base of operations where outside nations have been coordinating assistance to the Syrian rebels:

News of the clandestine Middle East-run "nerve centre" working to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad underlines the extent to which Western powers – who played a key role in unseating Muammar Gaddafi in Libya – have avoided military involvement so far in Syria. "It's the Turks who are militarily controlling it. Turkey is the main co-ordinator/facilitator. Think of a triangle, with Turkey at the top and Saudi Arabia and Qatar at the bottom," said a Doha-based source. "The Americans are very hands-off on this. U.S. intel(ligence) are working through middlemen. Middlemen are controlling access to weapons and routes."

The rebels have also been bolstered by the influx of Syrian military defectors and more effective hit-and-run tactics, and defections from within the Syrian elite continue as well, something Juan Cole believes will be crucial to the revolt's success:

Revolutions always involve dual claims of sovereignty. That is, two political forces have to vie over the loyalty of people and political legitimacy. The significance of this raft of defections is that gradually, the Syrian regime is no longer merely faces claims by a ragtag band of defecting corporals and sergeants, or by crowds gathering to chant and protest in town and city centers (both forms of opposition are still going on daily all around the country). The regime increasingly faces a former part of its own political elite, now increasingly denigrating its legitimacy or making claims of their own. This sign of the growth of dual sovereignty in the political sphere could be more decisive over the medium term than who wins what battle for what neighborhood.

But with Syrian refugees streaming out of the country and everyone from Al Qaeda [NYT] to Kurdish forces trying to use the conflict to their advantage, who would be dumb enough to intervene?

Governments in the West and in the Middle East fear the prospect of a power vacuum if Mr Assad were to go soon. Opponents, including the Syrian National Council, a wobbly coalition of Mr Assad’s foes, are trying to draw up a plan for a post-Assad Syria. But Western diplomats are taking the council less seriously, since it lacks credibility in Syria, and are shifting their focus to the FSA [Free Syrian Army] and internal groups. The idea of a unity government has yet to gain ground; Mr Assad’s opponents are split over whether to seek out any figures from the present government. The French are urging a role for Manas Tlass, a Sunni general and childhood friend of Mr Assad who recently defected. Foreign diplomats and FSA commanders are frantically trying to work out how the security forces might be rearranged in the event of the regime’s collapse. The UN and the Arab League are flailing. In other words, hand-wringing and head-scratching all round.

The Guardian, EA, and Al Jazeera are live-blogging. Previous Dish on the conflict's current escalation here, here, here, here and here.