BEIRUT, Lebanon — Government forces maintained their shelling of key Syrian cities on Thursday, with Aleppo in particular bracing for an anticipated showdown between rebel fighters expanding into more neighborhoods and government military reinforcements who have yet to materialize.
It was not exactly the calm before the storm, as fierce street fights that erupted sporadically led to deaths on both sides, activists said. But the Syrian government appeared to still be mustering its forces, with a large convoy of tanks, military vehicles carrying soldiers and other goods spotted on the southern outskirts of Aleppo, said Majed Abdel Nour, the spokesman in the city for the Sham News Network, an activist organization.
Rebel fighters also continued to arrive from surrounding areas, activists said. Although the insurgents said they managed to destroy police stations in two neighborhoods, they were repulsed when they tried to take over two others, Mr. Abdel Nour said.
Most of the fighting is taking place in the poorer, eastern parts of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, where a host of informal neighborhoods have sprung up in recent years. Populated mainly by Sunni Muslims arriving from rural areas, residents are sympathetic to the fighters, offering them meals to break the Ramadan fast and other support. There have also been clashes near the city’s historic center, which the United Nations designated a world heritage site.
But with random shelling falling during the night, residents took advantage of daylight to try to flee. Government helicopters continued to patrol the skies over Aleppo, firing occasionally, activists said. The official Syrian news agency reported on Wednesday that government forces continued to eliminate “scores of terrorists” in Aleppo.
Heavy government shelling was also reported on Thursday in Damascus, particularly in the southern areas of the city around the Yarmouk refugee camp, a hot spot over the past two weeks.
There were no serious engagements reported. But all signs indicated one was looming. After withdrawing all visible security forces, for a day, Syrian Army troops brought in on trucks or buses on Wednesday suddenly deployed around the 13th-century citadel.
Thousands more were en route, according to rebel fighters and activists.
“People know there is going to be chaos, fighting, shelling, so people are frightened,” said one activist reached via Skype. “They have stocked up on canned goods and are not venturing out.”
There was no public transportation, and hospitals were appealing for blood donations, he said.
“We fear the government’s retaliation,” said Ahmad, a resident of the southeastern Salaheddiin neighborhood, where so many insurgents poured in from the countryside that they sometimes ended up fighting one another for control of individual streets, residents said.
People streamed out of the neighborhoods where the rebel soldiers claimed control, figuring they would be pounded by government forces, following the same pattern in one Syrian city after another during the course of the 17-month-old uprising. But some men stayed behind to protect their property from looters.
Residents in the outlying districts said refugees from the inner city had taken over schools and parks to live in. Many of them were fleeing for a second time, having come to Aleppo from central cities like Homs and Hama where the government began attacking months ago. In Aleppo, the neighborhoods where the rebels established toeholds were mostly poor and on the eastern side of the city.
Tanks and troops normally deployed in nearby Idlib Province began to lumber eastward toward Aleppo, fighters and activists said.
One column of an estimated 23 armored vehicles carrying soldiers and ammunition out of Jebel az-Zawiya, a rebel stronghold in southern Idlib, was attacked by local fighters, a local activist in Turkey said. Roughly a third of the vehicles were destroyed, but the rest moved on toward Aleppo, he said.
Some rebels reached via Skype said they, too, were headed toward Aleppo, anticipating a major showdown.
The fighters in Idlib said they were preparing to exploit the sudden absence of government forces to leverage their area into more of an independent zone than they had been able to achieve in the past.
Nidal Qarra Mohammed, a member of the revolutionary council in Idlib Province, said the commanders of all the various militant factions intended to meet in a town near the Turkish border to declare their joint effort to make Idlib a safe zone free of government control. Mr. Mohammed said that some fighters had left Idlib for Aleppo after seeing Syrian Army soldiers pull up stakes and head there. Beyond Aleppo, clashes were reported in several major cities, including Damascus, and in Rastan, an insurgent enclave near Homs.
At a news conference in Damascus, Hervé Ladsous, the head of United Nations peacekeeping operations globally, said that half the 300 monitors first deployed in May had been sent home as the monitoring mission had now changed to a political one trying to start negotiations between the two sides. Its mandate expires in 27 days.
At the United Nations, Saudi and Qatari diplomats said they intended to introduce a resolution calling for a political transition in Syria in the 193-member General Assembly for a vote possibly as early as next week. The diplomats told reporters they were undertaking the action because of the Security Council’s failure to pass a Syria resolution last week after vetoes by Russia and China, which have consistently opposed any outside moves to subvert the Syrian government’s authority. Although the General Assembly does not have the enforcement power of the Security Council, approval of such a resolution would further isolate Syria and embarrass President Bashar al-Assad’s dwindling roster of friends.
The new fighting in Syria came as Turkey sealed its border to trade with Syria, a further sign of enmity between the neighbors whose leaders were once close friends. Turkey’s decision did not affect its policy on accepting Syrian refugees, thousands of whom have fled the mayhem for sanctuary across the border since the conflict started in March 2011.
Also on Wednesday, another Syrian ambassador to a Middle Eastern country announced his defection, the third to do so in the past two weeks. The resignation by Abdel Latif al-Dabbagh, the Syrian envoy to the United Arab Emirates, was not totally unexpected. He is married to Lamia al-Hariri, the Syrian ambassador to Cyprus, who defected a day earlier, said Mohamed Sarmini, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile. Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, announced his defection on July 11.
Syrian state media quoted the foreign ministry as saying Mrs. Hariri was never Syria’s ambassador to Cyprus, she was just replacing the chargé d’affaires there until a new ambassador or chargé d’affaires was appointed. As to her husband, the report said he had not been working since June 4 and his position as an ambassador was suspended based on a request from the ministry.