Free Syrian Army opposition fighters battle government security forces in Aleppo on July 25, 2012. / Getty
(CBS/AP) BEIRUT - Syrian tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships pounded rebel-held neighborhoods in the commercial hub of Aleppo on Sunday in a bid to retake control as President Bashar Assad's regime accused regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey of trying to destroy the country.
Syrian troops claimed victory in at least one neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, reports Reuters. While the troops claimed to have won back the Salaheddine district in the southwest of Aleppo with the help of helicopter gunships, the claims are impossible to verify at the moment.
Stuart Ramsay of Sky News, currently in Syria, told CBS News' Jeff Glor Sunday night that after government troops failed to take Salaheddine, they backed off and let artillery pound the area. Despite the fierce assault of the government, Syria's rebels remain optimistic, Ramsay said. (Watch the full interview with Ramsay below.)
"You do get that sense from the Free Syrian Army, and from all people involved in this revolution, they don't think they won't win now - it's just a matter of how long it takes them to do it," Ramsay said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta railed against Assad regime's assault on the city of Aleppo, according to the BBC.
"If they continue this kind of tragic attack on their own people in Aleppo, I think it ultimately will be a nail in Assad's own coffin," Panetta said
Activists say opposition fighters control large swathes of territory across Aleppo. A U.N. official said as many as 200,000 have fled the fighting in the city of 2.1 million people in the last two days, reports CNN. The government has been struggling for a week to beat back their assault and stem the tide of recent rebel advances in the civil war.
The head of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, called for international help in arming the rebels to face the regime's heavy weaponry, particularly tanks.
"If the international community cannot act, they should support the opposition with anti-tanks missiles and anti-aircraft rockets," Abdel Basset Sida told the Gulf News during a stopover in Abu Dhabi. "We seek international supporters to arm our uprising against the regime."
That lack of heavy arms has become an issue in the assault on Aleppo, reports CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer. Some of the senior strategists inside the Free Syrian Army didn't want the rebels to go into Aleppo at all, worried that the confrontation would lose them not only territory, but possibly hundreds of fighters. (Watch the full report from Palmer at left.)
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have expressed willingness to help fund the rebels and they are believed to be funneling money through Turkey to the opposition, which is using it to purchase arms and equipment.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem railed against interference by the region's Sunni powers in a rare public criticism of his Middle East neighbors. He accused them of supporting the rebels at the behest of Israel.
"Israel is the mastermind of all in this crisis," he said during a joint news conference in Tehran with his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi. "They (Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) are fighting in the same front."
Syria's Sunni majority forms the backbone of the uprising while the regime is dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Iran is Syria's only remaining ally in the Middle East, standing by Damascus throughout the 17-month uprising.
Amid fears of a massacre or a bloody final battle in Aleppo, civilians have been fleeing the city in ever greater numbers.