BEIRUT / DAMASCUS / MOSCOW: Syrian government forces have killed or wounded several leading Syrian rebel commanders as heavy fighting rages around a key road leading to Aleppo.
A Syrian airstrike killed a senior commander of the Islamist rebel Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo and wounded its chief and another leader, a watchdog said Friday.
Four more rebel chiefs were killed in other incidents, three in Aleppo province and the fourth in Homs, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Youssef al-Abbas, known as Abu al-Tayyeb, was intelligence chief for Tawhid and was killed in a strike Thursday on an army base captured by the rebels a year ago, the Britain-based Observatory said.
He had been in a car along with the brigade’s top commander, Abdel-Qader Saleh, and another senior figure of the group, Abdel-Aziz Salameh, both of whom were wounded.
A YouTube video that was posted after the attack shows Salameh resting in a hospital and vowing to return to the front lines.
Following the attack, Tawhid arrested 30 people suspected of being informers for President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The powerful brigade is among a number of Islamist units that have rejected the mainstream opposition Syrian National Coalition.
Meanwhile, two chiefs of rebel battalions were killed in fighting with loyalist forces near the international airport outside Aleppo.
A security source in Damascus confirmed there were still rebel pockets of resistance in the airport’s environs.
Elsewhere in the province, a former army colonel who commanded another rebel brigade was killed in fighting in the Maaret al-Artiq area.
For three weeks, the army has been pressing a campaign to retake rebel-held areas in Aleppo, particularly east of the city, and jihadist fighters have called for mass mobilization to counter regime advances.
Syria expert Fabrice Balanche told AFP the regime was seeking to progressively fragment rebel territory in the north.
“The army is trying to cut off eastern parts of Aleppo held by rebels from [their bases] in the countryside,” he said.
“At the same time, it is trying to open an approach to Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur [both southwest of Aleppo] to break up rebel territory, taking it bit by bit.”
In Homs province, a rebel chief was killed in Mahin, which the army said it had captured, along with a large cache of arms there that had been seized by the insurgents.
But the Britain-based Observatory said fighting was still underway there.
A number of reports this week by media activists inside Mahin have detailed how the rebel fighters transferred the bulk of the weaponry in the depot, said to be the country’s second-largest, to a variety of rebel units and destroyed the remainder, to prevent it from falling into the hands of government troops.
On the diplomatic front, a Syrian government delegation will meet officials in Moscow Monday to discuss preparations for an international peace conference that Russia, the United States and the United Nations are trying to convene, the Interfax news agency reported.
Interfax cited a Russian Foreign Ministry source for the report, but the ministry declined immediate comment.
The delegation is expected to include presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad and Ahmad Arnous, the Foreign Ministry’s senior official on European affairs.
Russia and the United States announced plans for the so-called Geneva II conference in May, to bring together representatives of the Syrian government and opposition. The opposition Syrian National Coalition agreed Monday to attend the conference but said there could be no role for President Bashar Assad in Syria’s future.
Russia says Assad’s exit from power cannot be a precondition for the talks aimed at ending the civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people.
President Vladimir Putin praised Assad’s readiness to send a delegation to the conference when he spoke to the Syrian leader by telephone Thursday in what Putin’s spokesman said was their first conversation in at least two years.
Putin has said Russia has no special relationship with Syria, which buys weapons from Moscow and hosts its only naval facility outside the former Soviet Union. Russia has also accused Assad of mishandling peaceful protests in 2011 and failing to avert the slide into civil war.
A pro-regime Syrian newspaper said Thursday that the Geneva II conference would be held Dec. 12.
Syrian daily Al-Watan, citing diplomats in Paris, said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had told his French counterpart Laurent Fabius that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would announce the date on Nov. 25.
The newspaper said a Syrian government source declined to confirm the report, while an adviser to the president of the opposition National Coalition also said a date for talks had not been finalized.
“The organizers of Geneva II want the conference to be held before the end of the year,” Munzer Aqbiq told AFP.
Syria’s Information Minister Omran Zoubi derided the opposition’s conditions. “Those who dream they’re going to Geneva to be given the keys to Damascus are stupid people without any political weight who understand nothing about politics and live in cloud cuckoo land,” Zoubi told the official SANA news agency.
“Those who announced their readiness to attend just a few days ago have done so at the behest of their masters,” he said in allusion to Western governments, which back the rebels.
In The Hague, the world’s chemical watchdog adopted a final roadmap for ridding Syria of its arsenal by mid-2014, hours before a deadline expired, a spokesman said.
“The plan is adopted,” Christian Chartier, a spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said after a meeting of its 41-member Executive Council.