"Syria’s civil conflict is expanding and intensifying as new tactics, players, and areas are -drawn into the battle for control," the New York Times reported Saturday. -- Damien Cave and Hwaida Saad called it "a conflict in which momentum swings wildly and progress is difficult to ascertain." -- Reuters indicated that at the moment, Syrian govenrment forces are taking the initiative, conveying reports of Syrian jets bombarding the Adawi neighborhood just north of the central Old City district." -- Hadeel Al Shalchi said that "Syrian artillery, planes, and a helicopter gunship pounded rebel positions in Aleppo," and "[o]n Friday Syrian forces stormed Tadamun, the rebels' last stronghold in the city." -- But the Associated Press said that "Assad's victories could be fleeting as armed opposition groups regroup and resurge." -- "Syria reached out to its powerful ally Russia on Friday, as senior officials pleaded with Moscow for financial loans and supplies of oil products," Vladimir Isachenkov and Zeina Karam, calling this "an indication that international sanctions are squeezing President Bashar Assad's regime" and "signs of desperation." -- They said that Syria had "requested a Russian loan to replenish Syria's hard currency reserves, which have been depleted by a U.S. and European Union embargo on Syrian exports." -- AP also reported that "there were signs that rebels may be planning another run on Damascus in an effort to drain the army's resources as fighting stretches into its second week in Aleppo, 350 kilometers (215 miles) to the north." ...
INTENSIFIED SYRIAN FIGHTING REPORTED IN BATTLES FOR DAMASCUS AND ALEPPO
By Damien Cave and Hwaida Saad
New York Times
August 4, 2012
BEIRUT -- Explosions and heavy fighting rocked Syria’s two largest cities on Saturday, witnesses and activists said, as the Syrian government and rebel fighters struggled to gain an advantage in the country’s bloody, 17-month-old conflict.
Also, Iran’s state news agency reported that unidentified “armed groups” had kidnapped 48 Iranians on the road to the Damascus airport after the Iranians visited a religious shrine.
The agency quoted an official from the Iranian Embassy in Damascus as saying it knew of the pilgrims’ whereabouts and was trying to get them released, Reuters reported. It would be at least the third time since the uprising began more than a year ago that a group of Iranians had been kidnapped, apparently by rebel forces angered by Iran’s support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
The latest kidnapping report could not be verified, and it was unclear who might have been responsible. But if true, the kidnapping and the greater use of heavy weapons -- tanks, helicopters, and jets are involved daily now -- suggest that Syria’s civil conflict is expanding and intensifying as new tactics, players, and areas are drawn into the battle for control.
Over the past week, attacks and counterattacks have been reported in at least half a dozen Syrian cities and towns, including the country’s largest Palestinian camp, in Damascus, the capital. For the first time, rebels have also used tanks they have seized, while the Syrian military has begun firing from jets in Aleppo, the country’s largest city and commercial center. Analysts have said the government’s helicopters are showing signs of wear.
On Saturday, the escalation continued.
Clashes erupted in at least three Aleppo neighborhoods, Bustan al-Qasr, Hamdanieh, and Salaheddin, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain. Rebels in the city, contacted by telephone and via Skype, confirmed heavy fighting and said they continued to focus on seizing government buildings, with the most ferocious engagement in recent days involving a government television station.
It has been two weeks since the fighting for Aleppo started. Rebel leaders have said repeatedly that they hope to make the city a safe haven and a headquarters for their efforts throughout the country. One opposition leader in London said last week that he was already setting up a transitional government that would make “liberated” Aleppo its capital.
But in a conflict in which momentum swings wildly and progress is difficult to ascertain, the rebels have yet to land a knockout blow. “It’s a guerrilla war,” Col. Malik al-Kurdi, deputy commander for the Free Syrian Army, said in an interview.
So far, especially in Aleppo, that means the rebels advance and retreat, gain territory, give it up, hide among the population, and then return again for another fight. This has already occurred several times in Aleppo, and the battle over the television station offers yet another example of the current way of war in Syria.
Rebels and activists inside the city said the fighting for the complex began late Friday with a rebel assault. “My house overlooks the buildings, and I could see the clashes from my rooftop,” said Tammam Hazem, an activist. “Three bullets hit our house.”
Rebels have made government buildings a priority in Aleppo. They have seized several police stations in contested neighborhoods, knocking out a base for government troops and supporters. And their initial raid on the television station, a strategic target because it is on a high hill but also symbolic and functional for any effort to set up a local rebel government, appeared to be successful.
“Our fighters got into the TV station buildings,” said Abu Hamza, one of the rebels in Aleppo, using a nickname that means “father of Hamza.” “I was there blocking the way, trying to keep out the thugs and state security guys who would try to get in.” But he and others said the government response was swift and typical: helicopters began firing from the air.
“We couldn’t handle the chopper attacks,” Abu Hamza said. “We lost about seven fighters.” He added, “We ran out of ammunition.”
So the rebels retreated to a nearby neighborhood, and on Saturday afternoon, Abu Hamza said they were looking for another opportunity. “Our fighters are still there, around the buildings,” he said. “We didn’t pull out. I went to get supplies, but I’m going back.”
Similar scenes have been described throughout Damascus, where fighting has surged again in what some people on Twitter are describing as the “Damascus volcano Part 2.”
Rebels and activists said the focus for both sides had become Tadamon, a rebel-controlled area adjacent to the country’s largest Palestinian neighborhood. Tadamon recently became the target of an all-out assault by government troops. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that mortars, helicopters, and armored vehicles were being used against the rebels, and that the rebels had destroyed at least four armored vehicles in the neighborhood so far.
Abu Omar, a local battalion chief for the rebels, said his fighters had pulled back Saturday afternoon because they were waiting for allies to send mortars. He said many of his fighters had sneaked into Yarmouk, the Palestinian neighborhood next door, where shelling killed 20 people Thursday night. As a result of that attack, he said, more Palestinians are trying to help.
“They’re working undercover,” he said. “They’re helping the brigades find safe locations.”
--An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Aleppo, Syria.
SYRIAN ARMY PUSHES TO BREAK REBEL FRONTLINES IN BATTLE FOR ALEPPO
By Hadeel Al Shalchi
** The Syrian Army deployed planes and a helicopter gunship as it targeted rebel positions in Aleppo, a key city in Syria's civil war. Fighting also intensified in Damascus Saturday. **
August 4, 2012
ALEPPO -- Syrian artillery, planes, and a helicopter gunship pounded rebel positions in Aleppo on Saturday, witnesses said, as President Bashar al-Assad's forces tried to break through the insurgents' frontline in Syria's largest city.
Syrian forces clashed with rebels around Aleppo's television and radio station, activists said, and a local rebel commander said his fighters were preparing for a "strong offensive" by government forces on the city.
In the capital Damascus, troops backed by armor stormed the last opposition bastion on Friday in a drive to crush a rebel offensive that coincided with a bombing that killed four of Assad's senior security officials. The onslaught continued on Saturday as jets bombarded the city, a resident said.
Syrian forces battered Aleppo's Salaheddine district, seen as a gateway for the Army into the city of 2.5 million people. The fate of the district could determine the outcome of a conflict that has already claimed some 18,000 lives.
"There is one helicopter and we're hearing two explosions every minute," a Reuters witness said.
The civil war has intensified in the past few weeks, with fighting engulfing Damascus and Aleppo for the first time in the 17-month-old uprising against Assad family rule.
The two cities are crucial prizes for both sides in a conflict that has eluded all attempts at a diplomatic solution and risks igniting a wider conflagration.
U.N. member states on Friday voted overwhelmingly to condemn the Syrian government at a special session of the 193-nation General Assembly that Western diplomats said highlighted the isolation of Assad supporters Russia and China.
Western and Arab powers want Assad to step aside, but Russia and China have used their Security Council vetoes to block attempts to force him out. They say outside interference is prolonging the bloodshed.
Assad's government, allied to Iran and Lebanon's armed Shiite Hezbollah movement, is at odds with Turkey and most of the Arab world, especially U.S.-aligned states such as Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-ruled Gulf partners.
DODGING ARMY BULLETS
In Salaheddine, rebels from the Free Syrian Army hid in alleyways, dodging the Syrian Army's bullets and tank rounds that struck a building in the western district on Saturday.
Two fighter jets opened fire with cannon and smoke billowed from the district. A witness said: "We saw two fighter bombers that are each capable of carrying one bomb fly over the area of Salaheddine and then we heard two explosions."
Bullets zipped past residential buildings, as rebels took cover behind concrete blocks and makeshift sandbags and fired in the direction of Assad's forces.
One fighter fell to the ground after a bullet hit his chest. Fellow rebels dragged him into a car, leaving a trail of blood on the ground, to take him to the field hospital.
Explosions shook the shutters of abandoned shops and brought down a rain of concrete from buildings in Salaheddine.
A Syrian activist told Reuters the rebels had earlier sought to extend their area of control from the Salaheddine district, where the most intense fighting has been focused, northwards to the area around the television and radio station.
"The Free Syrian Army pushed from Salaheddine to al-Adhamiya where they clashed this morning with Syrian troops. But they had to retreat," the activist who identified himself as Barraa al-Halabi told Reuters.
A 19-year-old fighter called Mu'awiya al-Halabi, who was at the scene, said rebels entered the station but were driven out.
"The Syrian Army sent snipers and surrounded the TV station and as soon as morning came, the Army started shooting. One of our fighters was martyred and four were wounded," he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said 110 people had been killed on Friday, including 88 civilians, also confirmed the clash near the station.
Syrian television said a large number of terrorists, the term it uses for the rebels, were killed and wounded after they tried to storm the television and radio station. It said the Army had killed dozens of fighters in Hamadaniyeh, Sukkari, and Salaheddine districts, and that others had surrendered.
Earlier in the day, a local rebel commander in Aleppo said he expected a Syrian Army attack on rebels "within days," echoing the head of the U.N. peacekeeping department, who said there had been a "considerable buildup of military means."
"We know they are planning to attack the city using tanks and aircraft, shooting at us for three to four days and they plan to take the city," Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi said.
Faced with the Syrian Army's superior firepower, Oqaidi said the rebels were counting on mass defections by government soldiers once the offensive started.
"At the moment, the soldiers cannot leave their bases and they are too afraid to defect. Once they are inside our city they will take off their uniforms and join us," he said.
In Damascus, a resident in the Adawi neighborhood just north of the central Old City district, reported that jets had pounded an area of the capital on Saturday. "The bombardment has been continuous since 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) in Tadamun district. It hasn't stopped for a moment," said the resident.
On Friday Syrian forces stormed Tadamun, the rebels' last stronghold in the city.
Syrian television said on Saturday an armed terrorist group had committed a massacre in the Damascus suburb of Yalda, near Tadamun. The television station said 20 people had been killed. It was not immediately possible to verify the incident, as Syria bars many foreign media from reporting inside the country.
Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is quitting as international peace envoy for Syria, said on Thursday that Assad should step down. He urged Syria allies Russia, China, and Iran to persuade him to embrace political transition.
A busload of 48 Iranian pilgrims were abducted by gunmen in Syria on Saturday, Iranian media reported, the latest in a string of kidnappings of visitors from the Islamic Republic.
SYRIAN REGIME PLEADS WITH RUSSIA FOR ECONOMIC AID
By Vladimir Isachenkov and Zeina Karam
August 3, 2012
BEIRUT -- Syria reached out to its powerful ally Russia on Friday, as senior officials pleaded with Moscow for financial loans and supplies of oil products -- an indication that international sanctions are squeezing President Bashar Assad's regime.
The signs of desperation came as resilient rebels fought regime forces in the Syrian capital only two weeks after the government crushed a revolt there. The renewed battles in Damascus show that Assad's victories could be fleeting as armed opposition groups regroup and resurge.
"The fighting in Damascus today proves that this revolution cannot be extinguished," said activist Abu Qais al-Shami. "The rebels may be forced to retreat because of the regime's use of heavy weaponry but they will always come back."
Syria is thought to be burning quickly through the $17 billion in foreign reserves that the government was believed to have at the start of Assad's crackdown on a popular uprising that erupted in March 2011. The conflict has turned into a civil war, and rights activists estimate more than 19,000 people.
Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, who has led a delegation of several Cabinet ministers to Moscow over the past few days, told reporters Friday that they requested a Russian loan to replenish Syria's hard currency reserves, which have been depleted by a U.S. and European Union embargo on Syrian exports.
He said Damascus also wants to get diesel oil and other oil products from Russia in exchange for crude supplies.
"We are experiencing shortages of diesel oil and gas for heating purposes," Syrian Oil Minister Said Maza Hanidi said in Moscow. "This unfair blockade has hurt all layers of the population."
The Syrian regime has blamed sanctions for shortages that have left Syrians across the country standing in long lines to pay inflated prices for cooking gas, fuel, sugar, and other staples.
Syrian officials refused to mention specific figures but said that deals with Moscow could be finalized within weeks. There was no immediate comment from the Russian government.
While the Syrian delegation was holding talks in Moscow, a squadron of Russian warships was approaching Syria's port of Tartus, the only naval base Russia has outside the former Soviet Union.
Russian news agencies reported that two of the three amphibious assault ships will call at Tartus while the third will cast anchor just outside the port.
They said that each of the three ships is carrying about 120 marines backed by armored vehicles. It wasn't immediately clear whether some of the marines will stay to protect Tartus. Some Russian media said the marines were supposed to ensure a safe evacuation of Russian personnel and navy equipment from the base if necessary.
Russia has protected Syria from U.N. sanctions and continued to supply it with weapons throughout the conflict. The Kremlin, backed by fellow veto-wielding U.N. Security Council member China, has blocked any plans that would call on Assad to step down.
On Friday, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly denounced Syria's crackdown in a symbolic effort meant to push the deadlocked Security Council and the world at large into action on stopping the civil war.
Before the vote, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon accused the Syrian regime of possible war crimes and drew comparisons between the failure to act in Syria with the international community's failure to protect people from past genocide in Srebrenica and Rwanda.
"The conflict in Syria is a test of everything this organization stands for," Ban said. "I do not want today's United Nations to fail that test."
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari called the resolution's main sponsors, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain, "despotic oligarchies."
"The draft resolution will have no impact whatsoever. It is a piece of theater," he told reporters after the vote. And Iran's No. 2 ambassador, Eshagh Alehabib, called the resolution "one-sided."
Assad's regime stands accused of a number of massacres in which hundreds of civilians, including women and children, were killed. The Syrian government blames gunmen driven by a foreign agenda for the killings, but the U.N. and other witnesses have confirmed that at least some were carried out by pro-regime vigilante groups, known as shabiha.
But the recent emergence of videos showing summary executions committed by rebel forces -- albeit on a far smaller scale than the regime's alleged atrocities -- is making it more difficult for the Syrian opposition to claim the moral high ground.
With the civil war becoming increasingly vicious, chances for a diplomatic solution were fading after the resignation Thursday of Kofi Annan, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria. Annan cited divisions within the Security Council preventing a united approach to stop the fighting.
The fighting continued Friday in the country's two most important cities, Aleppo and Damascus.
In Damascus, residents reported loud explosions and plumes of smoke over the southern edge of the city Friday, as frightened people stayed at home.
"The bombs are back, I have been hearing explosions all day," a resident of central Damascus told The Associated Press, asking to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
Government forces crushed a rebel assault on Damascus two weeks ago, but pockets of resistance remain including the southern neighborhood of Tadamon, where most of Friday's fighting took place.
Late Friday, Syria's official news agency SANA said government forces had hunted down the remnants of the "terrorist mercenaries" -- its term for the rebels -- in Tadamon. It said several were killed and many others wounded.
Al-Shami and other activists said troops backed by dozens of tanks and armored vehicles broke into Tadamon on Friday evening, forcing a fresh wave of residents spilling into nearby areas for shelter.
Many Damascus residents had earlier taken refuge in the country's largest Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk, where mortar shells raining down on a crowded marketplace killed 21 people late Thursday.
Nevertheless, there were signs that rebels may be planning another run on Damascus in an effort to drain the army's resources as fighting stretches into its second week in Aleppo, 350 kilometers (215 miles) to the north.
The U.N. peacekeeping chief, Herve Ladsous, warned of a major government assault on Aleppo in the coming days to retake the rebel-held neighborhoods.
"The focus is now on Aleppo, where there has been a considerable buildup of military means," he told reporters in New York late Thursday after briefing the Security Council on his trip to Syria. "We have reason to believe that the main battle is about to start."
--Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, and Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.
|< Prev||Next >|