Published in The Nation newspaper on 23-Jul-2012
ISTANBUL/DAMASCUS - Turkey sent batteries of ground-to-air missiles to the border with Syria on Sunday, media reports said, boosting its firepower as rebels in Syria seized several border posts.As fighting raged in Damascus and Aleppo, rebels were said to have taken control of three crossing points on the border with Turkey, which is sheltering thousands of Syrians who have fled the conflict at home.A train convoy carrying several batteries of missiles arrived in Mardin in southeastern Turkey and will be transferred to several army units deployed on the border, according to the Anatolia news agency.Television footage showed at least five vehicles in the convoy were carrying air defence missiles, in the latest show of force by Syria’s one-time ally which is now a fervent critic of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.Meanwhile, Syrian rebels were now in control of the Jarabulus, Bab al-Hawa and Al-Salama posts along the nearly 900-kilometre frontier with Turkey, a diplomat and Anatolia said.An amateur video showed armed men celebrating the takeover of the Al-Salama post, north of Aleppo, which the diplomat said occurred early Sunday.The crossing faces the Turkish border post of Oncupinar near Kilis in the southeast, where refugees at a camp there clashed with Turkish police after demonstrating over their living conditions. The video footage supplied by the shows one fighter, who identifies himself as spokesman for the “Northern Storm Brigade” of the rebel Free Syrian Army, said the border post was now under their control.“Bab al-Salama has been liberated from the hands of Assad’s mafia, after a suffocating siege on them,” he said, without giving his name. Regime forces “withdrew after suffering losses”, he added, describing Turkey as a “sister nation”. Several men standing behind him hold up their weapons to celebrate, chanting: “Allahu Akbar! (God is the Greatest)”. The man called the takeover of the outpost a step on the road “to liberate Aleppo, and then Damascus, and then the presidential palace”. Anatolia reported that rebel fighters took Al-Salama after hours of fighting during the night, and that the sounds of the battle could be heard from the Turkish side of the border.Forces led by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother used helicopter gunships Sunday in a new assault on rebels in Damascus, activists said, as clashes also raged in Syria’s second city Aleppo.The Fourth Brigade headed by Maher al-Assad mounted an offensive in the Damascus neighbourhood of Barzeh, triggering an exodus of residents, as a rebel commander appeared in a video saying the battle to “liberate” Aleppo had begun.“Regime forces are using helicopters to pound the Barzeh district,” an activist who identified himself as Abu Omar told AFP via Skype.“Families are trying to flee their homes, but it is difficult to get out of the neighbourhood. It is surrounded, and violence on the edges is intense,” he said.Abu Omar also said the army was raiding the nearby Rukn al-Din neighbourhood, while “helicopters used machineguns to fire into the district’s streets.”The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said “the feared Fourth Brigade” commanded by President Assad’s powerful younger brother Maher was carrying out the Barzeh attack.“Troops have stormed the northwestern Barzeh district of Damascus with tanks and armoured personnel carriers,” the group’s director Rami Abdel Rahman said, adding that snipers had been deployed on rooftops.The rebel Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) military council head General Mustafa al-Sheikh told AFP “a real war of attrition” was underway in Damascus.“The regime is collapsing, the speed at which it is falling has increased. That means it will use greater violence in order to try and save itself,“ said Sheikh.The Observatory also warned that a siege was underway on the outskirts of the upscale Mazzeh neighbourhood, saying “dozens of tanks” were preventing medical teams from accessing the area to scores of injured.The official SANA news agency announced that government forces had “cleansed” the capital’s Qaboon neighbourhood of “terrorists,” the regime’s term for rebel fighters.And state television aired footage reportedly from Qaboon showing dead bodies and weapons, communications equipment and money it said was captured from rebels.But it denied helicopter gunships were being used in the capital.Residents in the city reported bread shortages, and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA expressed concern about the fate of residents of the Yarmuk camp in the city.As battles continued in the capital, a rebel FSA commander declared that the battle to “liberate” the northern city of Aleppo had begun.In a YouTube video, Colonel Abdel Jabbar Mohammad Oqaidi announced “the start of the operation to liberate Aleppo from the hands of Assad’s gangs,” while pledging that rebels would protect civilians, including the city’s minorities.Fierce clashes engulfed its Salaheddin and Sakhur districts, with an anti-regime activist saying the army began an assault at dawn. SANA said soldiers were “chasing down terrorists,” adding that “many of them were killed.”In a new toll, the Observatory said that more than 19,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad’s regime began in March 2011.
With the violence escalating, more than 2,000 Syrians fled to Jordan early on Sunday, a prominent local charity in the neighbouring Arab state said, expecting a largescale influx.Thousands of refugees have also crossed into neighbouring Lebanon and Turkey, where stone-throwing Syrians on Sunday clashed with police at two camps over a lack of food and water.Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday received his newly appointed army chief-of-staff General Ali Ayyub, state television reported.“President Assad met chief-of-staff General Ali Ayyub and gave him his instructions,” the broadcaster reported.Ayyub replaces Fahd al-Freij, who was named defence minister after the death of Daoud Rajha in a blast that also killed three other senior regime members.Syrian authorities accused the West on Sunday of planning to “hijack” the country’s satellite television channels to broadcast misinformation about an alleged coup or defections.“An information ministry source warned that Western intelligence are planning, in cooperation with some Arab parties, to hijack the frequencies of Syrian satellite channels,” state news agency SANA reported.It said the aim would be “to broadcast false news on an alleged coup d’etat or ... military defections or the fall of certain cities,” in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.The ministry said it was part of “a plot against Syria.”
Published in The Nation newspaper on 23-Jul-2012