Syrian government troops have launched massive "sustained assaults" against rebels in the country's two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus, the BBC reported early Monday. -- The London Guardian reported that "Syria's brutal 16-month conflict now appears to be moving from the countryside into the cities, with rebels increasingly adept at staging guerrilla-style attacks followed by tactical withdrawals." -- AP noted that "Damascus and Aleppo are both home to elites who have benefited from close ties to Assad's regime, as well as merchant classes and minority groups who worry their status will suffer if Assad falls," adding that the rebels attack on Aleppo "was a sign of the rebels' growing confidence and capabilities even as regime forces appeared close to regaining control of the capital Damascus after days of bloody street battles." -- The Los Angeles Times spoke of an escalating "battle on the airwaves, the Internet, and social media" between the Syrian government and the rebels. -- But while it seemed impossible on Sunday to verify what is happening in Syria's two largest cities at the moment, it would seem to be beyond dispute that "Until a week ago, Damascus and Aleppo had been largely insulated from the violence roiling Syria's provinces"; both cities "have been viewed as bastions of support for Assad," Patrick McDonnell noted, concluding his aritlce with a reflection on the media war: "Thousands of Damascus-area residents have fled to the border with Lebanon, less than an hour away by car. The exodus includes both middle-class people and the poor, government supporters and opponents. Many spoke of their shock about how the war had suddenly and unexpectedly come to the capital. There was no word of the exodus in the official Syrian media, where the Information Ministry warned that Western intelligence agencies were plotting to 'hijack' the frequencies of Syrian TV channels. The purpose, according to the state-run news service, was to broadcast false reports -- about an 'alleged coup d'état' in Syria, military defections, and 'the fall of certain cities and the like.'" ...
SYRIA TROOPS HIT BACK AT REBELS IN DAMASCUS AND ALEPPO
July 23, 2012
Government forces have hit back at rebel-held areas in Syria's two biggest cities -- Damascus and Aleppo.
Sustained assaults were launched on Sunday against the north-eastern Damascus suburb of Barzeh, and against Mezzeh, in the west of the city.
Some reports from activists said troops regained control of Mezzeh, killing about 20 people suspected of helping the rebels.
Fighting was also said to be continuing in the country's second city, Aleppo.
The government counterattack in Syria follows a week in which rebels made major advances, taking control of several parts of Damascus, seizing border crossings and claiming an attack that killed four top security officials, including the defense minister and President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law.
The offensive against Mezzeh involved more than 1,000 troops and allied gunmen, backed by armoured vehicles, tanks and bulldozers, according to residents and activists quoted by the Reuters news agency.
Government forces "executed" at least 20 men in the area, some activists told the agency by telephone.
The attack on Barzeh, in the north-east of Damascus, was carried out by the army's fourth division, commanded by the president's brother Maher, using tanks and armored personnel carriers, the Syrian Observatory reported.
Earlier on Sunday, state media said that all "terrorists" -- as the government calls the rebels -- had been "cleansed" from Qabun, a district east of Barzeh. State television showed extensive destruction.
The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says government forces seem determined to drive the rebel Free Syrian Army completely out of Damascus and are setting about it quite systematically.
Reports from activists in Aleppo said there were clashes overnight from Saturday to Sunday between the Free Syrian Army and security forces.
They said a building in the Seif al-Dawla district collapsed under tank fire.
State TV played down the scale of the violence, saying troops were merely hunting down "terrorists."
The commander of FSA forces in Aleppo province, Col Abdul Jabbar Mohammed Aqidi, vowed to "liberate" the whole city, called on government troops to defect and vowed to protect members of the president's minority Alawite sect.
There were also reports of violence in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour on Sunday. Witnesses told Reuters that it was being attacked with artillery and rockets from helicopter gunships.
BBC sources in Syria also confirmed that rebels were now in control of the Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey. Turkey is not allowing non-Syrian nationals through so the border remains effectively closed.
Early on Monday, Qatar's Prime Minister, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, said a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in his country had offered President Bashar al-Assad safe passage out of Syria if he stepped down quickly.
He also said the gathering had urged the Free Syrian Army rebels and the opposition to form a transitional government.
And according to a report in the *Wall Street Journal* on Sunday, the United States has been trying to persuade Iraq to close its air space to flights between Syria and Iran in order to stop arms and oil shipments from reaching Syria. The West suspects Tehran of supplying arms to President Assad.
On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 19,106 people had been killed since March 2011. The U.N. said in May that at least 10,000 people had been killed
SYRIANS FLEE AS BATTLE BLAZES ACROSS DAMASCUS AND ALEPPO
By Luke Harding and agencies
** Fierce fighting continues in Syria's two largest cities with the army bombarding parts of the capital with helicopter gunships **
July 22, 2012
ANTAKYA [Antioch], Turkey -- Syria was in the grip of bloody urban warfare on Sunday, with fierce fighting between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and government forces raging on the streets of Damascus and in the northern city of Aleppo.
Video footage showed the Syrian army bombarding several districts of the capital using helicopter gunships. Smoke could be seen pluming across the city.
Tanks and soldiers besieged the northern Barzeh district, previously a center of rebel resistance, with the army carrying out what it called mopping-up operations in Marzeh, another opposition enclave. Many shops were shut. Only a few central areas were unaffected, with Damascus resembling a war zone.
There was also fighting in Aleppo, Syria's historic biggest city. The FSA, which penetrated into Aleppo late last week, was battling Syrian troops equipped with gunships and tanks.
The rebels were in control of several areas of the city, with fighting around the intelligence headquarters. There were clashes in other parts of the country, too, including the eastern city of Deir al Zor on the Euphrates and in Homs.
Syria's brutal 16-month conflict now appears to be moving from the countryside into the cities, with rebels increasingly adept at staging guerrilla-style attacks followed by tactical withdrawals. Activists on Sunday said the death toll had gone up sharply to more than 19,000. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said July was shaping up to be the deadliest month of the conflict so far, with 2,752 people killed in the first three weeks.
More than 30,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring Lebanon, with others still seeking to escape. The Syrian government maintained the situation inside the capital on Sunday was normal. It released photographs of President Bashar al-Assad meeting his new chief of staff, General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub. The photograph was impossible to authenticate, although the Israeli military said Assad and his family were still in Damascus. Soldiers were dealing with a few remaining "terrorists," state television said.
The deteriorating situation led Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to warn that his country would "have to act" if the Syrian regime collapsed and there was a risk its chemical weapons and missiles could fall into the hands of militant groups.
In an interview on Fox News in the U.S., Netanyahu said Israel had not considered specifically trying to cross the border to seize the weapons but added: "There are other possibilities."
He said preventing Syria's weapons from falling into the wrong hands was key to Israeli security.
"Could you imagine Hezbollah, the people who are conducting with Iran all these terror attacks around the world -- could you imagine them having chemical weapons? It would be like al-Qaida having chemical weapons," he said. "It's something that is not acceptable to us, not acceptable to the United States and to any peaceable country in the world."
"So I think that this is something we'll have to act to stop if the need arises. And the need might arise if there's a regime collapse, but not a regime change," he said.
The battle for Damascus follows a devastating bomb attack last Wednesday at the national security headquarters which killed four members of the president's top military and security command. The circumstances of the attack remain unclear.
On Sunday, rebels said they had captured a third border crossing with Turkey at Bab al-Salam, north of Aleppo, and close to the Turkish town of Antakya, already overflowing with Syrian refugees. "The Free Syrian Army has taken control of the Bab al-Salam crossing, but Assad's forces are bombarding our positions from afar," Ahmed Zaidan, spokesman for an opposition group called the Higher Council of the Revolution's Leadership, told Reuters. Video showed triumphant rebels posing at the border with the pre-Ba'athist revolutionary flag. Iraqi officials said the Syrian army had used a helicopter gunship to recapture one of two remote border crossings with Iraq briefly seized by the opposition.
Colonel Abdul-Jabbar Mohammed Aqidi, the commander of rebel forces in Aleppo province, said: "We gave the orders for the march into Aleppo with the aim of liberating it."
He said in a video: "We urge the residents of Aleppo to stay in their homes until the city is liberated." He added that rebels were fighting inside the city while others were moving in from the outskirts.
Aqidi called on government troops to defect and join the opposition, and claimed rebels would protect members of the minority Alawite sect, the offshoot of Shia Islam to which Assad belongs, saying: "Our war is not with you but with the Assad family."
An Aleppo-based activist, Mohammed Saeed, told Reuters the fighting was concentrated in several neighborhoods.
Saeed said rebels were in full control of the central Salaheddine district and the nearby Sakhour area. He added that thousands of residents had fled tense quarters of the city for safer neighborhoods and the suburbs.
"Aleppo is witnessing serious street battles" and many shops are closed, Saeed said. He said there were fierce clashes on the road leading to the city's international airport, as rebels tried to surround the airfield to prevent the regime from sending reinforcements.
Despite the regime's unflagging efforts to present an image of calm in the capital, Malaysia's government said it was shuttering its embassy in Damascus and evacuating more than 130 students and diplomats, while Italy ordered of its citizens to leave the country because of the "progressive deterioration" of the situation.
SYRIAN REBELS SAY FIGHT FOR COUNTRY'S LARGEST CITY HAS BEGUN
July 22, 2012
BEIRUT -- Syrian rebels have launched an offensive to "liberate" the country's largest city of Aleppo, an opposition commander said Sunday, while in Damascus government troops backed by helicopter gunships wrested back control of rebel-held neighborhoods.
The opposition attack on Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub and traditionally a bedrock of support for President Bashar Assad, was a sign of the rebels' growing confidence and capabilities even as regime forces appeared close to regaining control of the capital Damascus after days of bloody street battles.
With Syria's civil war moving from the countryside and smaller cities into the country's two main urban centers, an activist group said the death toll had risen to more than 19,000 since the uprising began in March 2011. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said July is shaping up to be the deadliest month of the conflict so far, with 2,752 people killed in the first three weeks -- already nearly as many as the previous month.
The bloodshed has escalated as the rebels have taken the battle to the government with a week of fighting in Damascus, including a bombing that struck at the core of Assad's regime, killing four senior officials.
"Right now Assad's inner circle has been dismantled and Assad has lost his balance," said Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem al-Ahmad of the Free Syrian Army at a meeting in Turkey. "This war is now being waged in the heart of Syria in Damascus."
In a bid to seize the momentum, the opposition also has taken control of several border crossings with Iraq and Turkey.
A video posted online by activists Sunday showed about a dozen gunmen standing in front of the Bab al-Salamah crossing on the Turkish frontier as they raised the Syrian opposition flag.
Yet, even as the rebels seized one crossing, they abandoned another. Iraqi military officials and state television reported that Syrian government forces retook control of the Rabiya crossing in the north after rebels pulled out. Far to the south, the rumble of fighting could be heard from the larger Bukamal crossing near the Iraqi town of al-Qaim in the desert.
Brig. Gen. Manaa Rahal of the Free Syrian Army trumpeted the seizures of the Turkish border crossings as key to the rebel struggle.
"The seizure of these border crossings was a crucial victory for the opposition and its strategic importance will only increase," he said in the meeting in Turkey's Hatay province.
Damascus and Aleppo are both home to elites who have benefited from close ties to Assad's regime, as well as merchant classes and minority groups who worry their status will suffer if Assad falls.
Col. Abdul-Jabbar Mohammed Aqidi, the commander of rebel forces in Aleppo province, said in the video posted on Youtube, "we gave the orders for the march into Aleppo with the aim of liberating it."
He called on government troops to defect and join the opposition, and said rebels will protect members of President Bashar Assad's Alawite minority sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam, saying "our war is not with you but with the Assad family."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed said the fighting is concentrated in several neighborhoods.
Saeed said rebels are in full control of the central Salaheddine district and the nearby Sakhour area. He added that thousands of residents have fled tense quarters of the city for safer neighborhoods and the suburbs.
"Aleppo is witnessing serious street battles," Saeed said, with fierce clashes on the road leading to the city's international airport, known as Nairab, as rebels tried to surround the airfield to prevent the regime from sending reinforcements.
Syrian state TV, however, played down the scale of the violence, saying government troops were hunting down "terrorists" and killing large numbers of them. The government refers to those trying to overthrow Assad's regime as "terrorists."
In the capital of Damascus, the Observatory also reported attacks by government forces in the neighborhoods of Mazzeh and Barzeh that had once been held by rebels. It said that troops used helicopters gunships in the attack, causing heavy casualties.
Maj. Gen. Nabil Zughaib, described as a missile expert, was also shot dead along with his wife and a son in the Damascus neighborhood of Bab Touma, according to the Observatory.
Syrian state TV denied government forces were using helicopters in Damascus, and said the capital was calm and troops were just mopping up the remnants of the "terrorists" in cooperation with residents.
Television also showed images of calm streets in Damascus and workmen cleaning up rubble in the once-rebel held Midan neighborhood, in effort to portray a capital where everything has returned to normal.
Assad, meanwhile, appeared on state TV receiving Gen. Ali Ayyoub, the new army chief of staff, whose predecessor replaced the defense minister slain in the bombing. It was only Assad's second appearance since the attack.
Despite the regime's efforts to present an image of calm in the capital, Malaysia's government said it was shuttering its embassy in Damascus and evacuating more than 130 students and diplomats, while Italy ordered of its citizens to leave the country because of the "progressive deterioration" of the situation.
The escalating bloodshed and increasing chaos also has put Syria's neighbors on edge, particularly Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel was closely monitoring the violence in Syria for signs the regime's chemical weapons or missiles might make their way into the hands of anti-Israeli militants.
Over the weekend, Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, said the Jewish state was preparing for a possible attack to prevent that from happening.
For his part, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has announced the start of a "national campaign to collect donations to support our brothers in Syria," suggesting the oil-rich kingdom may be looking to boost its financial support for the rebels, which they are already believed to be funding.
NEW CLASHES REPORTED IN SYRIA'S 2 BIGGEST CITIES
By Patrick J. McDonnell
** Rebels say battle has begun to 'liberate' Aleppo. In Damascus, the opposition reports new government attacks featuring artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships. **
Los Angeles Times
July 22, 2012
BEIRUT -- New clashes and military shelling were reported Sunday in Syria's two major cities, as the warring sides in the country's escalating conflict intensified their information battle on the airwaves, the Internet, and social media.
A rebel commander, identified as Col. Abduljabbar Aqidi, declared in an opposition video released on YouTube that the battle had begun to "liberate" the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's commercial and business hub. Reached by Skype, Aqidi said rebels controlled the Salahudeen, Sakhoor, and Tareeq al Bab neighborhoods, and had repulsed a counterattack by government forces, killing 20 soldiers. Clashes continued into the night, he said.
Rebel officials called the assault on Aleppo a planned offensive and publicly warned people to stay in their homes. Many residents were reported to be fleeing the city.
The official state media, on the other hand, reported that authorities in Aleppo had inflicted "heavy losses" on "terrorists," the government's term for the armed rebels.
In a conflict that many now view as sectarian in nature, the rebel colonel publicly vowed to protect the rights of minority Christians and Alawites, members of a Shiite Islam offshoot whose ranks include President Bashar Assad. The rebellion stems from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority. Aleppo has a substantial population of Christians, and many are worried about a potential Islamist takeover of Syria if Assad's secular government is overthrown.
In Damascus, the Syrian capital, opposition activists reported a determined military assault on the Mezzeh district, home to many embassies and offices. One activist in the city reported at least eight killed and 60 wounded.
Until a week ago, Damascus and Aleppo had been largely insulated from the violence roiling Syria's provinces.
Both cities have been viewed as bastions of support for Assad. But an uprising began a week ago in the capital, followed by a rebel thrust that kicked off Friday in Aleppo, bringing the conflict to Syria's major population centers.
In Damascus, opposition activists on Sunday reported a new wave of government attacks involving artillery, tanks, and helicopter gunships targeting opposition strongholds.
A British-based opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, issued an "urgent" appeal on behalf of besieged residents of the Mezzeh district, where the "regime bombardment" left many stranded without medical attention, the group said on its Facebook page. One Damascus-based activist reported that five people were executed after the shelling.
The group also reported helicopter gunship shelling of northern Damascus' Barzeh suburb, one of the districts that rose up in revolt a week ago.
On state-run media, the talk was of a return to "normal life in Damascus," in the words of the official news agency.
"Authorities, in cooperation with locals, are chasing vanquished terrorists in the streets," reported the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, which dismissed as "baseless" opposition claims of aerial bombardment.
The governor of Damascus province was quoted vowing that the battered Midan district -- site of intense combat last week -- would be back to "normal life" again in five days. Footage of Midan showed block after block of abandoned, debris-strewn streets, burned cars, and bullet-pocked walls.
Syrian troops were reported Sunday by Iraqi officials to have recaptured a border post with Iraq that had fallen to insurgents. Rebels, on the other hand, said their forces had seized a second crossing along the Turkish border, a further indication of Assad's tenuous hold on power.
Verifying contradictory reports from Syria is difficult because the government has severely restricted the access of foreign journalists and independent observers.
Residents of Damascus reported the sound of shelling as well as shortages of gasoline, bread and electricity. Many remain too frightened to venture out.
"The humanitarian situation in Mezzeh is very bad," said one resident, reached by telephone, who, like others, asked not to be named for security reasons. "Many people are living in schools and they need food and healthcare. . . . People really can't move in the streets."
Thousands of Damascus-area residents have fled to the border with Lebanon, less than an hour away by car. The exodus includes both middle-class people and the poor, government supporters and opponents. Many spoke of their shock about how the war had suddenly and unexpectedly come to the capital.
There was no word of the exodus in the official Syrian media, where the Information Ministry warned that Western intelligence agencies were plotting to "hijack" the frequencies of Syrian TV channels. The purpose, according to the state-run news service, was to broadcast false reports -- about an "alleged coup d'état" in Syria, military defections, and "the fall of certain cities and the like."
--A special correspondent in Beirut contributed to this report.
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