Middle East

Running battles wrack Aleppo

Rebels stand atop a tank captured from government forces in the village of Anadan.

ALEPPO/UNITED NATIONS: Advances in Syria’s largest city were claimed by both sides Monday as government forces used aircraft and artillery to attack rebel-held neighborhoods and the United Nations chief warned Damascus against using weapons of mass destruction.

“The government is adding to its brutal crackdown by attacking heavily populated areas with fighter aircraft and helicopters,” Ban Ki-moon said. “The armed opposition groups have also stepped up their attacks.”

Addressing fears of a wider Middle East war, Ban said: “A sectarian civil war would also gravely imperil Syria’s neighbors,” Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.

Ban’s warning came a day after the convoy of the new head of the U.N. observer mission was attacked near the city of Homs.

General Babacar Gaye’s convoy was attacked by small arms fire in the town of Talbiseh, although there were no injuries in the incident, and it was unclear who fired on the convoy.

Gaye said he was deeply concerned by the violence by both sides in Aleppo.

“My observers there have reported an upsurge in the violence, with helicopters, tanks and artillery being used,” the Senegalese general said.

He said he had also seen heavy shelling of Homs during a visit Sunday.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone Monday “to coordinate efforts to accelerate a political transition in Syria,” the White House said.

This “would include the departure of [Syrian President] Bashar Assad and be responsive to the legitimate demands of the Syrian people,” the statement said.

France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said he would convene an urgent Security Council session to discuss the Syrian crisis, while Saudi Arabia is circulating a draft General Assembly resolution demanding an end to the violence, backing political dialogue and transition, and calling for Syria’s chemical weapons to be held secure.

For its part, in two identical letters addressed to the head of the United Nations Security Council and the U.N.’s secretary general, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said “armed terrorist groups” backed openly with funds and weapons by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had committed horrifying crimes against innocent civilians in Damascus and Aleppo.

In Aleppo, Colonel Abdul-Jabbar al-Oqaidi, the Free Syrian Army commander for the city, said that the rebels had inflicted heavy losses on the regime’s forces in the neighborhood of Salaheddin, but that there had been many civilian deaths.

“Aleppo will be the graveyard of the tanks of the Syrian army,” Oqaidi told AFP, urging the west to institute a no-fly zone.

Oqaidi said “several quarters of Aleppo are being bombed with MiG [fighter jets] and helicopters.” The army said later it had cleared Salaheddin of “terrorist groups,”claims that were denied by the rebels.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 40 people, 30 of them civilians, were killed in Syria Monday.

An FSA unit claimed it won an early morning battle at the Anadan checkpoint, northwest of Aleppo, after 10 hours of fighting.

Videos of the attack posted on the Internet show fierce exchanges of fire in the early morning and then later, victorious rebels hauling out boxes of ammunition and taking heavy machine guns for the fight in Aleppo.

By securing the checkpoint, the rebels now control a direct route between Aleppo and the Turkish border.

Fighting and shelling raged in other parts of the country, including Damascus, Deraa, Homs, Hama, Latakia and Raqqa, while the son of a former top military commander, General Ibrahim Safi, was assassinated by gunmen.

Civilian pilot Firas Safi was killed early Monday on Airport Road, near the capital, after returning from a trip, according to pro-government websites.

A Beirut-based publication, Al-Ruwwad, said that the elder Safi, who once headed the Syrian Army’s First Division under President Hafez Assad, had been in Lebanon since the beginning of the uprising, in an act of “silent defection.”

Also, Syria’s ranking diplomat in the United Kingdom became the latest high-ranking envoy to defect.

Britain’s Foreign Office said Khaled Ayoubi, the charge d’affaires, told officials that he wasn’t willing to represent the regime any longer.

Ayoubi was preceded by diplomats in Cyprus, the UAE and Iraq.

“[The defection] illustrates the revulsion and despair the regime’s actions are provoking among Syrians from all walks of life, inside the country and abroad,” the Foreign Office said.

Turkey also reported that the deputy head of security in Latakia, a regime stronghold, had defected as well.

The brigadier general was among a group of 12 officers who crossed into Turkey late Sunday, an official said. His defection raised to 28 the number of generals who have left for Turkey since the start of the uprising.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sunday attacks on Aleppo were putting the nail in the coffin of Assad’s government, showing he lacks the legitimacy to rule. “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, speaking to reporters shortly before landing in Tunis.

Monday, the Syria-based Joint Command of the FSA made public its vision of transitional political regime for a post-Assad era.

The group’s “salvation plan” proposal said that a Higher Defense Council should be made up of the leaders of various revolutionary military councils throughout the country, with its first task being the establishment of a Presidential Council, composed of six individuals, both military and civilian, to manage a transitional phase.

The proposal envisages a political system headed by a prime minister, assisted by eight deputy prime ministers, and a Cabinet of 31 ministers.

The document says the military wing of the uprising will appoint four figures: the deputy prime minister responsible for security affairs, the interior minister, the defense minister and the minister responsible for the prime minister’s office, the latter a civilian figure.

Most portfolios match the current government’s structure, with slight exceptions, such as a minister responsible for women’s affairs, and the replacement of the ministry of national reconciliation in Syria’s government with a ministry responsible for “human rights and transitional justice.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 31, 2012, on page 1.




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