BEIRUT/DAMASCUS: Government aircraft hammered rebel bastions nationwide Sunday as internal opposition members met for a rare meeting in the capital for talks aimed at negotiating a political transition of power as an alternative to armed rebellion.
Armed rebels say they now control most of the country and have moved their command center from Turkey to “liberated areas” inside Syria, in a sign of increasing coordination.
The lightly armed and disparate opposition units have fought off government forces backed by tanks and aircraft for months, but with daily death tolls now surpassing an average of 200 people a day, according to some monitors, the war in Syria increasingly resembles a battle of attrition with no clear winner.
At least 40 more people were killed Sunday, according to an early toll from the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, as Syrian aircraft carried out strikes on rebel bastions, especially in central Homs province and Deir al-Zour in the east.
Apartment blocks in Albu Kamal, a town in oil-rich Deir al-Zour province, were targeted as rebels and soldiers battled on the ground in several districts of the town on the Iraqi border.
“The insurgents are trying to wrest control of this strategic town” said Observatory chief Rami Abdel-Rahman. Losing Albu Kamal would be “a deadly blow for the regime.”
Troops pounded rebel-held areas in and around Damascus, in the second city Aleppo in the north, neighboring Idlib, the central cities of Hama and Homs, and Deraa in the south.
The Britain-based group, which gathers information from a network of activists on the ground, said warplanes also raided Jabal al-Akrad in the coastal province of Latakia.
In Aleppo, rebels destroyed two fighter planes on the ground in Orm, a rebel commander told AFP, while a correspondent in the city itself said fighting was less intense than past days.
Security forces also carried out raids and arrested civilians in the southern Damascus neighborhood of Hajar al-Aswad while anti-regime protests took place in Salhiyeh, another district in the capital, the Observatory said.
As the fighting continued, Colonel Ahmad Abdul-Wahab of the Free Syrian Army said the regime’s aerial superiority was the only thing preventing the FSA from taking control of the capital.
“We control most of the country. In most regions, the soldiers are prisoners of their barracks. They go out very little and we can move freely everywhere, except Damascus,” Abdul Wahab told AFP.
“With or without outside help, the fall of the regime is a question of months, not years,” he said.
“If we had anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, we could quickly gain the advantage. But if foreign countries don’t give us these, we will still win. It will take longer, that’s all.”
Abdul-Wahab, a colonel in the regular army only nine months ago, said his defection was driven by “the magnitude of the crimes of the regime, which is killing its own people.”
He said he commands four battalions which make up the “Nasser Salaheddine” brigade in Aleppo and the region.
Abdul-Wahab said he attends daily meetings with FSA leaders in the northern metropolis, where orders are given to him and other battalion commanders.
The FSA said Saturday that the next step would be to “liberate” Damascus as it announced that it has moved its command base from Turkey to areas it controls inside Syria.
“The Free Syrian Army command has moved into liberated areas of Syria following arrangements made with battalions and brigades to secure these zones,” FSA chief Colonel Riyad al-Asaad said in a video posted online.
Nearly 80 percent of towns and villages along the Turkish border are outside the control of Damascus, according to the Observatory.
In Damascus, regime-tolerated opposition figures who reject foreign intervention in Syria’s 18-month conflict called for the ouster of President Bashar Assad during a rare meeting.
The gathering was tolerated by the regime in an apparent attempt to lend credibility to its claims that it remains open to political reform and was attended by diplomats from Iran, Russia and China, Assad’s main allies.
The meeting, organized by the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, or NCB, an umbrella for 16 opposition groups with roots in the country, agreed in principle on “overthrowing the regime with all its symbols” while emphasizing the need for “peaceful struggle to achieve the goals of the revolution.”
A statement from the meeting called for an immediate cease-fire accompanied by the full withdrawal of the Syrian army from towns and cities and the release of all political detainees and kidnapped people. This would be followed by the start of negotiations between the opposition and representatives of the Syrian government on a peaceful transition of power, it added.
“It’s our right to meet here in the capital to express our views without being subject to dictates and pressures or to be forced to make concessions,” said the NCB’s head, Hasan Abdul-Azim, who spent long years in Syrian prisons for his opposition role.
NCB leaders, most of them traditional leftists, accuse the rebels and the Syrian National Council, a political opposition group based outside Syria, of being beholden to Turkey, which shelters defected Syrian generals and opposition figures, as well as Gulf Arab countries that support the rebels. The rebels, in turn, accuse the NCB of being cut off from grassroots opposition fighters on the ground.
Many rebels look askance at any political plan short of Assad’s immediate ouster, seeing it as a play for time.
As the meeting got under way, just under a kilometer away a bomb hidden in a black bag exploded on a footbridge in downtown Damascus, close to the Four Seasons hotel, wounding two people, witnesses reported.
And Thursday, ahead of the meeting, two senior NCB participants and their driver disappeared after landing at Damascus International Airport. The NCB has blamed the regime for the disappearance while the government claimed the three were kidnapped by “terrorist groups,” a phrase it uses for rebels.
The scenario outlined by the participants is similar to a six-point peace plan proposed by the former international peace envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan. That plan ended with Annan quitting the post last month after his cease-fire failed to take hold as violence escalated across the country.
Annan’s replacement, Lakhdar Brahimi, is preparing to brief the U.N. Security Council Monday about talks he had with both Assad and the opposition during a visit to Damascus last week.
Brahimi discussed Syria with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon Saturday and both agreed that the 18-month crisis was “a steadily increasing threat to regional peace and stability,” a statement said.