Current battles to determine Syria's fate: Assad
President Bashar al-Assad said on Wednesday the Syrian army's battle with rebel forces would determine the fate of his country, and praised soldiers for confronting what he said were "criminal terrorist gangs."
"The fate of our people and our nation, past, present and future, depends on this battle," Assad, who has not spoken in public since four of his top security officials were assassinated two weeks ago, said in a written statement marking armed forces day.
Assad's remarks highlight the seriousness of the current battle in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, where the Syrian army is fighting to repel a rebel offensive.
The Aleppo battle comes after Syrian government forces thwarted a similar offensive in Damascus a fortnight ago.
Rebels made early gains in the northern city of Aleppo, capturing key districts and checkpoints that gave them access to crucial supply routes from neighboring Turkey.
The assault came after Islamist militants seized several border posts with Turkey and Iraq last week.
Assad said the army had proved "through confronting the terrorist criminal gangs throughout the past period that you have steely resolve and conscience, and that you are the trustees of the people's values."
"My trust in you is great, and the trust of our people in you that you are ... the defender of its just causes," Assad said in comments which the state news agency SANA said were published in Syria's armed forces magazine.
Neither Assad's forces nor the rag-tag rebels can afford to lose Aleppo if they hope to prevail in the wider struggle for Syria.
Heavy gunfire echoed around the Salaheddine district in the southwest of the city on Tuesday, scene of some of the worst clashes, with shells raining in for most of the day.
Reuters journalists have established that neither the Syrian army nor rebel fighters are in full control of the quarter, which the government said it had taken on Sunday.
One journalist said Salaheddine resembled a "ghost town," its shops shuttered, with no sign of life.
During the day on Tuesday large clouds of black smoke rose into the sky after attack helicopters turned their machine guns on the eastern districts for the first time in the latest fighting and a MiG warplane later strafed the same area.
According to an NBC News report that a Western official did not dispute, the rebels have acquired nearly two dozens surface-to-air missiles, which were delivered to them via neighboring Turkey.
It is not clear what kind of man-portable air-defense systems they are or whether the rebels have the training to use them, but the missiles could tilt the fighting field if the rebels were able to target the Syrian government's air operations.
The fighting has proved costly for the 2.5 million residents of Aleppo, a commercial hub where significant support for Assad remains.
Thousands of residents have fled and those who remain face shortages of food and fuel and the ever-present risk of injury or death.
"We have hardly any power or water, our wives and kids have left us here to watch the house and have gone somewhere safer," said Jumaa, a 45-year-old construction worker, who complained it was nearly impossible to observe the fasting month of Ramadan.
Makeshift clinics in rebel-held areas struggled to deal with dozens of casualties after more than a week of fighting.
Up to 18,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in Aleppo and many frightened residents were seeking shelter in schools, mosques, and public buildings, according to figures given by the UN refugee agency in Geneva.
US group to finance rebels
The Obama administration gave approval last week to a pro-rebel lobby group in the United States to send funds to armed factions loosely coordinating under the Free Syrian Army banner.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that the US treasury department's Office of Foreign Assets Control awarded a license to the Syrian Support Group to finance the armed rebels.
While the license prohibits the group from directly shipping weapons to the rebels, armed groups can use funds received from the Syrian Support Group to purchase weapons.
It is the latest sign of Washington's support for armed rebels, which has backed the push to oust Assad, but remains largely reluctant to play an active role in supporting the insurgency.
The US fears growing Islamist elements linked to al-Qaeda are moving into Syria and emerging as frontrunners in the rebellion.
Syria's armed opposition is a loose coalition of rogue militias, encompassing army defectors, local volunteers and Islamist insurgents. All are mostly working without a central command.