Middle East

Rebels seize security compound near Golan Heights

Men chat in Al-Hamidiya neighbourhood in Homs March 16, 2013. Picture taken March 16, 2013. REUTERS/Yazen Homsy (SYRIA - Tags: SOCIETY)

BEIRUT: Syrian rebels Sunday seized a Syrian military intelligence compound in the southern Hauran Plain near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, rebel commanders said.

The frontier, quiet since Israel and Syria agreed on a cease-fire in 1974, has turned volatile in recent weeks, after opposition brigades stepped up attacks against army and intelligence compounds there.

The compound near the Yarmouk River in the town of Shagara, 8 km from a cease-fire line with Israel, fell after a five-day siege, the sources said.

“We have completely taken over this security compound this morning. It’s a command center for the shabbiha [pro-Assad militia]. They retreated after strong blows dealt to them during a five-day siege,” said Abu Iyas al-Haurani, a member of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade.

Another rebel commander said the aim of the attacks in Western Hauran is to open a new front in the fight against President Bashar Assad that would stretch troops deployed there and to secure a supply route to the western approaches of Damascus.

In Aleppo province, rebels seized several weapons depots in the village of Khan Toman after days of fierce clashes, a military source told AFP.

“Opposition fighters gained control over weapons and ammunition stores in the village of Khan Toman in southern Aleppo province on Saturday after fierce fighting that went on for more than three days,” the source said.

Activists said the opposition had taken control of “huge reserves,” and video posted online showed fighters examining dozens of crates containing weapons and ammunition inside one warehouse.

“These are spoils from Assad,” the person filming the warehouse says, as fighters move from crate to crate, urging the camera to film the weapons.

“Rockets, film these rockets,” they say. “These are 107-mm caliber, made in Iran,” they add.

“These are the rockets that Bashar Assad was hitting us with.”

The video says the capture of the depots was led by the Martyrs of Syria and the Hittin Brigades of the rebel Free Syrian Army. The capture of the arms depots was confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, which also reported “heavy fighting between regime forces and rebel fighters in the area of Khan Toman.”

In Aleppo, it said, clashes erupted between Islamist fighters belonging to an Islamic court body in the city and members of the rival opposition brigade in the Sakhur neighborhood. The dead included the head of the body’s police force, the Observatory said, a Syrian who fought in Iraq and was imprisoned there.

Elsewhere, pro-regime militants battled Bedouin and opposition fighters in the village of Dama in southern Swaida.

“The clashes lasted several hours and killed at least three members of the [pro-regime] Popular Committees,” the Observatory said, adding that eight Bedouin and opposition fighters were also killed.

In Damascus, regime forces were shelling the southern district of Al-Hajar al-Aswad, the group said, adding that fighting continued in the northern Barzeh neighborhood, which residents began fleeing a day earlier under heavy fire.

On the diplomatic front, the opposition Syrian National Coalition will convene Monday to choose an interim prime minister for areas the rebels control, launching its most serious attempt yet to form a rival government to Assad’s regime.

Twelve candidates are running, including economists, businessmen and a former Syrian Cabinet minister.

Some warn setting up such a government could close the door to negotiating an end to the civil war and instead harden the battle lines even more.

Another obstacle is asserting the authority of a government picked by the largely exile-based opposition, especially in areas where extremist militias dominate.

The SNC needs to take the reins in increasingly chaotic rebel-held areas where many services have broken down, but doing so means taking a political risk, said University of Oklahoma professor Joshua Landis.

“Obviously [the opposition] has been very frightened of trying, because it does not have a real social base on the ground, and it is worried that if it fails, it will get egg on its face,” said Landis, who runs a blog called Syria Comment.

Leading members of the coalition are meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday and Tuesday to pick a prime minister who would put together the interim government, said coalition spokesman Khalid Saleh. A vote is expected by Tuesday, he said.

The coalition released 10 names Sunday but is not publishing the names of two contenders who live in areas under government control, he said.

Among the candidates are Osama Kadi, the coalition’s economic adviser from London, Ontario, Canada; Ghassan Hitto, an IT manager who recently moved from Dallas, Texas to Turkey; Assad Asheq Mustafa, a former Syrian agriculture minister and former governor of Syria’s central Hama province, and Walid al-Zoabi, a real estate entrepreneur from Dubai. Saleh described the candidates as technocrats.

Analyst Fawaz A. Gerges said that the move is likely to block a political solution.

“By electing an interim Cabinet, the Syrian opposition will put an end to any possibility for a negotiated settlement with the Syrian regime,” said Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

With an interim government in place, the “war option would win over diplomacy,” Gerges added.

The Observatory said at least 96 people had been killed throughout the country, according to a preliminary toll for Sunday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 18, 2013, on page 1.




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