Middle East

Obama to meet regional leaders on Syria

A Syrian protester shouts slogans during an anti-regime demonstration in Aleppo.

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: President Barack Obama will host leaders from key U.S. regional allies in the coming weeks for talks on Syria, the White House said, as violence there continued to spiral Friday.

Syrian rebels seized a government checkpoint on a key highway from Damascus to the border with Jordan, an opposition group said, and a barrage of rockets slammed into the contested neighborhood of Barzeh, on the northeastern edge of Damascus, killing at least five people and trapping others under the rubble.

With violence continuing unabated, an unmanageable humanitarian catastrophe and so far, no promising signs of a political solution to the diplomatic stalemate over the country’s fate, the U.S. administration announced the talks with regional leaders to tackle the crisis.

The White House said Jordan’s King Abdullah II would meet with Obama on April 26 for talks on “Jordan’s political and economic reforms, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and additional regional issues of mutual concern.”

Obama will then host Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 16 for talks on “Syria, trade and economic cooperation, and countering terrorism.

“As friends and NATO allies, the United States and Turkey are partners in addressing a range of critical global and regional issues,” a statement said.

Obama will also host Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed al-Nahayan of the United Arab Emirates on April 16, and will meet with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani on April 23.

Turkey, Jordan and Qatar have strongly backed the 2-year-old revolt against Syria’s President Bashar Assad.

The announcement came as rebels overran an army checkpoint near the border with Jordan, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said.

The rebels have made significant gains in recent weeks in the southern province of Deraa near the border, capturing military bases and taking the town of Dael.

They have also overrun several towns near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, fueling tensions in the sensitive military zone.

Only two weeks ago they seized an air defense base near the strategic southern international highway, bolstering access to supply routes into the capital.

Those gains have coincided with what Western and Arab officials say are U.S.-backed training of opposition fighters in Jordan and an influx of foreign-funded weapons into the south. Assad’s regime had warned Thursday the kingdom was “playing with fire” by allowing the U.S and other countries to train and arm Syrian rebels on its territory and, in an interview aired on Turkish television Friday, the president warned the fall of his regime or the breakup of Syria will unleash a wave of instability that will shake the Middle East for years to come.

Assad told Ulusal Kanal that “we are surrounded by countries that help terrorists and allow them to enter Syria.”

He accused Turkey of knowingly supporting rebels but said it was not clear whether Jordan was intentionally backing his opponents.

He also warned that if his government fell or if Syria was divided, it “will have a domino effect” across the region and create “a period of instability for long years and maybe decades.”

The opposition advances in the southern border area could be leading up to control of the region along the Jordanian border. That would be a major victory that could offer rebels a staging ground to try to attack the capital.

The rocket attack on the capital’s Barzeh neighborhood Friday followed days of heavy fighting between the rebels and the military in the area.

Rebels have established footholds in districts on the edge of Damascus and in suburbs in the northeast and south, and from there they fire mortar bombs into the heavily defended city, but they have yet to break the government’s tight hold on the capital.

Activists said several rockets exploded in a residential area in Barzeh Thursday night and Friday morning. The opposition Barzeh Media Center and a militant website claimed the Syrian military fired 14 rockets, killing three children, a woman and an elderly man. It said more people were still buried under the rubble.

“The impact of the rockets was huge,” said a Barzeh-based activist, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals. “Several houses collapsed and others were set on fire.”

In Aleppo, fighting continued for the strategic Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood, where high ground provides a vantage point over much of the city.

Nationwide, violence killed at least 36 people Friday, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and doctors inside Syria.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 06, 2013, on page 1.




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