An image grab taken from AFP TV shows Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi
An image grab taken from AFP TV shows Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi, rebel military chief of Aleppo, speaking during an interview with AFP, at an isolated farmhouse, near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Oqaidi, who was a former colonel of the army of President Bashar al-Assad before he defected, pronounced that Aleppo will be the "graveyard" of the Syrian army. © - AFP
An image grab taken from AFP TV shows Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi
Iskander Kat, AFP
Last updated: July 29, 2012

Aleppo will be Syrian army's "graveyard," says rebel chief

Aleppo, the latest battleground in Syria's 16-month uprising, will be the Syrian army's "graveyard," said Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi, the head of the rebels in the city.

It is pitch black as he arrives at an isolated farmhouse surrounded by olive groves in northern Syria for an interview with an AFP correspondent.

Despite the heat and fierce fighting a few hours earlier, the former colonel in President Bashar al-Assad's army appears relaxed and confident that his men will win the battle and bring down the regime.

"Aleppo will be the graveyard of the tanks" of the Syrian army, Oqaidi declares after a day in which the rebels claimed to have destroyed "eight tanks and some armoured vehicles and killed more than 100 soldiers."

As he speaks, the owner of the farmhouse, an influential Sunni notably in charge of "logistics" for the rebellion, disposes ashtrays and offers beverages, while several prominent men of Aleppo listen in silence.

The interview takes place in the dark as the electricity is out, a routine for several hours each day in the country's commercial hub, and the rebel chief is illuminated only by camera light.

"We ask the West for a no-fly zone," he says in order to prevent aerial raids carried out by Assad's forces.

After massing for two days, Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopters on Saturday launched a ground assault on Aleppo's Salaheddin district, where rebels concentrated their forces when they seized much of Aleppo on July 20.

The dawn attack brought a firestorm over the city of 2.5 million residents and sent thousands of people fleeing.

The rebels have so far managed to fend off the assault although the shelling by regime forces continued on Sunday.

"We are ready to bring down this regime," Oqaidi says, interrupted constantly by the ringing of his mobile phone.

He assures that the rebel Free Syrian Army will not withdraw, as it did in Damascus earlier this month, but that it will face the attack.

"There is no strategic withdrawal of the Free Syrian Army. We await the attack," he says, refusing to reveal how many rebels are fighting in Aleppo as these were "military secrets."

He said his men were positioned across Aleppo, adding that regime troops faced obstacles when it comes to entering the city.

"The army can only use its aircraft or heavy artillery at a distance, shelling cities, destroying houses. It cannot enter the city," he says.

"We are positioned throughout the city and we have arms to defend ourselves against helicopters," he adds, accusing the regime of trying to "commit a massacre."

"They want to do what they did in Homs," Oqaidi said, referring to the central Syrian city which was subjected to incessant bombardment throughout winter and became a symbol of violence and repression of the regime.

"We expect them to commit a very great slaughter, and we urge the international community to intervene to prevent these crimes," the colonel says.

He also said that the Syrian army had no real cause to fight.

"The Syrian army wavers, it is collapsing. It stands for no specific cause," he says.

After the interview, Oqaidi continues meetings into the night with longstanding opponents.

And just hours before dawn, he bids farewell to his audience in English, before disappearing into the night, followed by his aide who is armed with a Kalashnikov and the colonel's laptop.

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