ANKARA / DAMASCUS / UNITED NATIONS: Syrian rebels seized another border crossing with Turkey Wednesday, consolidating their grip on a frontier through which they ferry arms for battles against President Bashar Assad’s forces around the northern city of Aleppo.
Turkey confirmed the fall of the Tel Abyad border post, the third of seven main crossings along the Turkish-Syrian frontier to come under rebel control, while Syrian state media spoke only of bloody fighting in the area.
At the Tel Abyad border crossing, near the Turkish town of Akcakale, 200 km northeast of Aleppo, rebels could be seen in television footage tearing down a Syrian flag.
“I can confirm that the border post has fallen. It is under the control of the rebels,” a Turkish official said.
Meanwhile, Assad told Iran’s foreign minister, who visited him in Damascus, that the war engulfing his country was targeting “the entire system of resistance [against Israel], and not just Syria.”
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, quoted by Syrian state television, assured the president of “unlimited support” in efforts to “restore peace and stability” after reforms he had made. Assad was quoted as saying he would welcome an “equitable solution that meets the interests of the Syrian people.”
Salehi made the visit to discuss proposals by a four-power grouping of Iran, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but Iran’s role in finding a solution was condemned by the head of the opposition Syrian National Council, who wants Arab states to work together for international intervention in Syria similar to the joint initiative in Libya.
SNC head Abdel-Basset Seyda, speaking after talks in Doha with Qatari officials, said “we call on the Arabs to undertake a clear and serious initiative, like the position they took toward the Libyan revolution.”
“We believe that Iran is part of the problem,” Sieda said.
In Turkey, military prosecutors investigating the downing of a Turkish plane by Syria say initial findings show Syria targeted the plane with a long-range missile while it was in international air space.
The report carried by the state-run Anadolu agency backed Turkish government claims. Syria has insisted the plane was hit by anti-aircraft artillery while flying low in Syrian air space.
The report says radar data and an inspection of the wreckage show the plane was not hit, but that it lost altitude and crashed from the power of a missile blast near its rear.
The plane went down June 22 in the Mediterranean Sea near Syria, killing its two pilots, in an incident that further strained ties between the two neighbors.
Also, a Western intelligence report seen by the Reuters news agency says Iran has been using civilian aircraft to fly military personnel and large quantities of weapons across Iraqi airspace to Syria to help Assad crush the 18-month uprising.
The report counters Iraqi claims that it doesn’t allow the passage of any weapons through its airspace, alleging that the transfers are organized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. “It also flies in the face of declarations by Iraqi officials,” the report said. “Planes are flying from Iran to Syria via Iraq on an almost daily basis, carrying IRGC personnel and tens of tons of weapons to arm the Syrian security forces and militias fighting against the rebels.”
The issue of Iranian arms shipments came up repeatedly at a Senate hearing in Washington on the nomination of Robert Beecroft as the next U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. Beecroft, currently the deputy chief of mission there, said he had “personally engaged on this repeatedly at the highest levels of the Iraqi government.”
U.S. officials have “made very clear that we find unacceptable and we find it unhelpful and detrimental to the region and to Iraq and of course first and foremost to the Syrian people,” he added.
Two Boeing 747 aircraft specifically mentioned in the intelligence report as being involved in Syria arms transfers – an Iran Air plane with the tail number EP-ICD and Mahan Air’s EP-MNE – were among 117 aircraft hit with sanctions Wednesday by the U.S. Treasury Department.
The Treasury also blacklisted aircraft operated by Iran’s Yas Air for supplying Syria with weapons. Washington also accused a Belarus state-owned firm, Belvneshpromservice, of supplying munitions to the Syrian government, as it announced new sanctions.
In Syria, the Local Coordination Committees, a network of opposition activists, said 140 people were killed around the country, with 67 in Damascus and surrounding areas, while Amnesty International said in a report that civilians, including children, are the main victims of army bombing and shelling of areas taken by the opposition.
Assad’s forces use “weapons which cannot be aimed at specific targets, knowing that the victims of such indiscriminate attacks are almost always civilians,” said Donatella Rovera of Amnesty.
Separately, the U.N. Security Council heard testimony from Leila Zerrougui, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special representative for children and armed conflict, during a session devoted to the issue.
“The situation for children in Syria is dire,” Zerrougui told the Council. “My staff and other United Nations colleagues have documented government attacks on schools, children denied access to hospitals, girls and boys suffering and dying in bombardments of their neighborhoods, and also being subjected to torture, including sexual violence, sometimes for weeks,” she said.
Zerrougui added that since the publication of the report, her office had received information about bomb attacks by opposition groups that have killed children, and that the rebel Free Syrian Army “may have children associated with their forces.”
Ban said the Syrian crisis would top next week’s General Assembly gathering of world leaders, lamenting that both sides seemed determined to end the conflict by force.
At a news conference Tuesday, he said both Assad’s regime and the rebels trying to topple him must support U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s efforts to find a political solution. He also called on any nations sending arms into Syria to stop. Ban said Brahimi may put a plan to the Syrian government after talks at the U.N. headquarters in New York next week.