Middle East

Eid bypasses war-ravaged Syria

U.N. observers embrace upon arrival in Damascus from Homs, as they prepare to depart the country.

BEIRUT: Military observers from the United Nations left Syria Monday as the Eid al-Fitr holiday saw violence around the country claim the lives of nearly 300 people over the last 48 hours.

Fighting between government forces and rebels raged in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Deraa, Deir al-Zor, Lattakia and Idlib, with foreign powers growing more anxious about the developments in the 17-month-old crisis.

In Washington, U.S President Barack Obama warned that Syria’s use of chemical or biological weapons would represent a “red line” and would change his country’s approach to the conflict.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Obama said the use of such weapons of mass destruction, which Syria has, would widen the conflict considerably.

“It doesn’t just include Syria. It would concern allies in the region, including Israel, and it would concern us,” Obama told reporters.

Obama warned the regime of President Bashar Assad – and “other players on the ground” – that the use or movement of such weapons would be a “red line” for the United States.

For its part, Russia cited what it called increasing evidence that Syrian rebels were obtaining large amounts of Western-made arms.

Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov’s comments echoed others that blame Western and Arab countries for the failure to end the conflict through diplomacy, such as outgoing mediator Kofi Annan’s peace plan.

“There is growing evidence, including in the media, that Syrian opposition is massively supplied with Western-made weapons through third countries,” Gatilov wrote on his Twitter microblog. He did not provide details.

A report in Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper said British intelligence personnel were helping rebels launch successful attacks on government forces with information gathered from their listening posts in nearby Cyprus.

It said the most valuable intelligence has been about the movements of troops toward the city of Aleppo, which is now partly controlled by rebels and is the scene of some of the fiercest fighting.

In addition, an official from Germany’s BND foreign intelligence service told the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag that “we can be proud of the significant contribution we are making to the fall of the Assad regime.”

The paper said German spies were stationed off the Syrian coast and also active at a NATO base in Turkey, whose government is staunchly opposed to the Assad regime and is sheltering Free Syrian Army rebels.

Turkey, meanwhile, warned that its capacity to take in refugees was swiftly reaching its limit, while Jordan complained to the Syrian authorities over the firing of four rockets that fell inside Jordanian territory, wounding a young girl.

“A young girl was injured on Sunday after four rockets fell on an area near the border with Syria as a result of clashes inside Syria,” Information Minister and government spokesman Samih Maaytah told AFP without elaborating.

“We are in touch with the Syrian sides to determine what happened,” he said without indicating the source of the fire.

“The Jordanian government summoned the Syrian ambassador in Amman and gave him a letter of protest. Jordan rejects what happened and will make sure it does not occur in the future,” Maaytah said.

Separately, Syria’s Information Ministry denied reports that a high-ranking Syrian military official had died, responding to reports to that effect throughout the day, including one by Russia Today, that a plane bearing the official’s body had left Moscow for Damascus.

The ministry did not specify the identity of the official, but speculation among activists has centered on the president’s brother, Brig. Gen. Maher Assad, the commander of the Fourth Division, and the head of Air Force Intelligence, General Jamil Hasan.

It is speculated that the official was wounded in a July bombing of the crisis cell of top-level military and security officials leading the government’s offensive against the uprising.

The fighting over the Eid al-Fitr holiday was steady on several fronts, including areas around the capital, where the suburb of Moadamieh saw government troop backed by tanks try to retake the area from rebel fighters.

Reports by activists said that at least 10 people had been killed and 20 wounded by tank shelling of the town, a southwestern extension of Damascus on the road to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

“The offensive began at 6 a.m. [Monday]. Tanks were dispatched from the Mezzeh airport base and Brigade 555 in Somarieh and have now almost surrounded Moadamieh,” Haya, an activist, said by phone, referring to two nearby military bases.

One activist claimed that the defection of some 30 troops to the rebels the day before could have been behind the assault on Moadamieh.

Activists said the bodies of 10 people, shot execution-style, were discovered in the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun, while the Damascus suburb of Daraya also saw at least 10 others killed by shelling and fire by helicopter gunships.

In Aleppo, battles continued to rage between government troops and rebel forces. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops backed by helicopters attacked several Aleppo neighborhoods, including Salaheddine, Suleiman al-Halabi, Shaar, Izaa, Saif al-Dawla, Tariq al-Bab and Bustan al-Qasr.

It said regime shelling hit the eastern city of Albu-Kamal, while clashes were reported in the city of Deir al-Zor.

A Syrian army offensive, backed by helicopters, also targeted the rebel-held village of Qastal Maaf, near the Turkish border in the governorate of Latakia.

The Local Coordination Committees said that 134 people were killed Monday.

The violence came after U.N. cars were seen leaving a Damascus hotel Monday morning, carrying some of the last members of a mission which at its height deployed 300 observers across the country.

The unarmed monitors suspended operations in June after coming under fire and most have already left the country, leaving behind a small liaison office in the capital in case a chance for a political settlement to the bloodshed emerges.

“Our mission failed because the two sides did not abide by their commitments,” one uniformed U.N. observer, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

The mandate of the monitoring mission, known as UNSMIS, expired Sunday night after diplomats at the U.N. said conditions for continuing operations had not been met. The last monitors are expected to be out of the country by Friday.

On the first day of Eid al-Fitr, Sunday, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 130 people were killed, while the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists on the ground, put the figure at 170.

The day was also marked by Assad’s first public appearance since a July 18 bombing killed four of his top security officials.

The Syrian president attended prayers at a Damascus mosque to celebrate the start of Eid, marking the end of the month of Ramadan.

Assad was filmed at prayer with his prime minister and foreign minister, but not with his vice president, Farouq al-Sharaa, whose reported defection was denied the previous day.

Shaken by the July bomb attack in Damascus and defections – including that of his last prime minister – Assad’s recent appearances on state TV had previously been restricted to footage of him conducting official business. He was shown swearing in the new prime minister a week ago.

The LCC said that of the 170 casualties on Sunday, 51 each were killed in the Damascus area and Deraa in the south.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 21, 2012, on page 1.




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