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Syrian Rebels Hold Out Against Government Forces Offensive in Aleppo

July 31, 2012

Syrian rebels held firm in Aleppo on Monday, saying the city would mark the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as military forces stepped up their offensive to drive out the armed opposition.

France to focus on Syria as UN Security Council head

France has said it will call for an emergency meeting on Syria as soon as it takes over the presidency of the UN Security Council in August, but many wonder what the gathering can accomplish.

Syrian rebels hold out against offensive in Aleppo

Syrian rebels held firm in Aleppo on Monday, saying the city would mark the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as military forces stepped up their offensive to drive out the armed opposition.

By Karen Creed / Mark Thompson (video)

France 24, July 31, 2012 News Wires (text)


The Syrian military has stepped up its campaign to drive rebels out of Aleppo, where fighters said they were holding firm, vowing to turn the country’s largest city into the “grave of the regime”.

Opposition activists denied a government declaration that its forces had recaptured the Salaheddine district, in southwest Aleppo, straddling the most obvious route for Syrian troop reinforcements coming from the south.

Hospitals and makeshift clinics in rebel-held eastern neighbourhoods were filling up with casualties from a week of fighting in the city, a commercial hub drawn into the 16-month-long revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

“Some days we get around 30, 40 people, not including the bodies,” said a young medic in one clinic. “A few days ago we got 30 injured and maybe 20 corpses, but half of those bodies were ripped to pieces. We can’t figure out who they are.”

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 40 people, 30 of them civilians, were killed in Syria on Monday. Two rebel fighters died in Salaheddine.

Outgunned rebel fighters, patrolling in flat-bed trucks flying green-white-and-black “independence” flags, said they were holding out in Salaheddine despite a battering by the army’s heavy weapons and helicopter gunships.

A fighter jet flew overhead, a reminder of the overwhelming military advantage still enjoyed by government forces.

"Bashar's forces will be buried"

“We always knew the regime’s grave would be Aleppo,” said Mohammed, a young fighter, fingering the bullets in his tattered brown ammunition vest.

“Damascus is the capital, but here we have a fourth of the country’s population and the entire force of its economy. Bashar’s forces will be buried here.”

So far, however, the government’s superiority on the ground means rebels have had little success in holding on to urban territory. The rebels made a major push into Damascus two weeks ago, but were driven out.

The Syrian government has said it has recaptured Salaheddine. Reuters journalists in Aleppo have not been able to reach the neighbourhood to verify who holds it.

The army’s assault on Salaheddine echoed its tactics in Damascus earlier this month when it used its overwhelming firepower to mop up rebel fighters district by district.

Assad’s forces are determined not to let go of Aleppo, where defeat would be a serious strategic and psychological blow.

Military experts believe the rebels are too lightly armed and poorly commanded to overcome the army, whose artillery pounds the city at will and whose gunships control the skies.

Obama, Turkish PM Erdogan discuss Syria transition

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and US President Barack Obama discussed ways to speed up the process of political transition in Syria during a telephone call, according to a statement issued by Erdogan’s office.

"In the talks, they took up the co-ordination of efforts to accelerate the process of political transition in Syria, including Bashar al-Assad leaving the administration and the meeting of the Syrian people's legitimate demands", the statement read. (Reuters)

“Yesterday they were shelling the area at a rate of two shells a minute. We couldn’t move at all,” a man calling himself a spokesman for the “Aleppo Revolution” said on Monday. “It’s not true at all that the regime’s forces are in Salaheddine.”

Warfare has stilled the usual commercial bustle in this city of 2.5 million. Vegetable markets are open but few people are buying. Instead, crowds of sweating men and women wait nearly three hours to buy limited amounts of heavily subsidised bread.

In a city where loyalties have been divided, with sections of the population in favour of the Assad government, some seemed wary of speaking out in the presence of the fighters, many of whom have been drafted in from surrounding areas.

Asked about his allegiances, one man waiting at a police station that had been badly damaged by shellfire said: “We are not with anyone. We are on the side of truth.”

Asked whose side that was, he replied: “Only God.”

Others stopped members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and asked them to do something about the supply of bread and petrol.

Rebel fighters remain in control of swathes of the city, moving around those areas armed with assault rifles and dressed in items of camouflage clothing in an edgy show of confidence.

They were emboldened to strike at Aleppo and central Damascus by a July 18 explosion that killed four of Assad’s top security officials.

Big powers divided

With big powers divided, the outside world has been unable to restrain Syria’s slide into civil war.

The only international military presence is a small, unarmed U.N. observer mission. A convoy carrying the head of the mission was attacked on Sunday and only the vehicles’ armour prevented injuries, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday.

He gave no further details of the attack. U.N. officials said on condition of anonymity that the convoy of five vehicles was hit by small arms fire in Talibisa, some 17 km (10 miles) from Homs, in what they said was an opposition-held area.

Moscow has supported Assad and has shown no sign of abandoning him, blaming the West and Arab countries for stoking the revolt by backing the opposition. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Twitter: “Situation is really critical in Aleppo. It is clear that biased media by all means try to do work for the opposition when the latter fails.”

France said it would ask for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to try to break the diplomatic deadlock on Syria, but gave no indication that Russia and China would end their longstanding policy of blocking measures against Assad.

In London, Syria’s most senior diplomat resigned because he could no longer represent a government that committed such “violent and oppressive acts” against its own people, the British Foreign Office said. Charge d’affaires Khaled al-Ayoubi joins a growing list of senior Syrian defectors.

Amid growing concern about security on its frontier, Turkey sent at least four convoys of troops, missile batteries and armoured vehicles to the border with Syria.

There has been no indication that Turkish forces will cross the border, and the troop movements may just be precautionary in the face of worsening violence in Syria.

France to focus on Syria as UN Security Council head

France 24, July 31, 2012

By Joseph BAMAT (text)

As the new head of the UN Security Council from Wednesday, France wants to convene an emergency meeting of the Security Council to find an international response to the escalating violence in Syria. However, analysts remain sceptical about the chances of a breakthrough, as Russia and China continually refuse to endorse sanctions on the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius spoke out strongly against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime on July 30, insisting foreign ministers representing world powers would be called on to discuss a new resolution condemning Assad, but also a “transition period” for the war-torn country.

Speaking to reporters at the Olympic Games in London on Monday night, President François Hollande confirmed France would push for a meeting “as soon as possible”, once it takes over the rotating presidency of the Security Council on August 1.


However, Fabious and Hollande’s wish for a diplomatic solution in the short-term seems unrealistic. Moscow has shown no signs of abandoning Assad and blamed the West and Arab countries for fuelling the civil war by backing the opposition - both symbolically and by the sale of communication equipment and weapons.

While British, US and French leaders have often stated that Assad has lost legitimacy and must step down, Russia and China have said the Syrian leader is part of the solution and has a role to play in post-war Syria.

On Monday, Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov said on the micro-blogging website Twitter: “The situation is really critical in Aleppo. It is clear that biased media try to do work for the opposition when [the rebels] fail.”

The government has been struggling to recover positions won by rebels, and the number of reported deaths has been steadily rising almost daily.

“Things have been totally blocked at the Security Council for some time now because of the standoff between the West on one side and China and Russia on the other. Because of this impasse, most diplomats and experts in the halls of the UN tell us that - if there is a meeting - it will be very difficult to accomplish anything,” said FRANCE 24 correspondent Emmanuel Saint-Martin from New York.

Saint-Martin said similar sentiments were expressed by France’s allies, especially the Americans, who said other alternatives needed to be explored. “Contrary to President Hollande, the Americans appear to have given up hope for a diplomatic solution,” he added.

Outside the usual UN channels, analysts see few diplomatic options - especially given the divisions that plague the Syrian opposition and the Arab League. “The gap inside the Security Council seems too deep to breach,” said Rafizadeh Majid, a Washington DC-based Syrian-Iranian scholar. “The problem is the UN is the only game in town, the only credible venue.”

According to the Middle East scholar, one of the best ways of accelerating Assad’s departure would be for foreign powers to recognise an exiled Syrian government, in a move reminiscent of the Libyan civil war last year.

In June 2011, France under former president Nicolas Sarkozy recognised the opposition Libyan National Council as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people. That decision precipitated a NATO-led military intervention that helped topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi a few months later.

However, according to Majid, the same scenario is difficult to repeat in Syria, where the main opposition group – the Syrian National Council – has limited credibility among ordinary Syrians and has repeatedly displayed internal divisions.

“The Syrian National Council has had no consistency in its message with big differences between its members, who are mostly outside the country, and local forces fighting Assad,” Majid noted, “They are unfortunately too divided to be recognised as an exiled government.”

For many, the Arab League has also demonstrated its incapacity to take the lead in solving the crisis. While Saudi Arabia remains keen on supporting the Syrian opposition, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq – who share borders with Syria – have hesitated to apply pressure on Assad, fearing the civil war could spill over national boundaries.

No rabbit out of the hat

France has already shown it was interested in taking on a bigger role in the Syrian crisis, hosting the third, and so far largest, “Friends of Syria” meeting in Paris on July 6. Members at the conference agreed to increase aid to Syria’s opposition, especially by providing it with new communications technology.

According to Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut, it does make sense for France to keep up pressure on Russia and China through the UN Security Council, even if France itself does not expect a sudden diplomatic breakthrough.

“No one assumes they will pull a rabbit out of the hat. But by continuing to push for sanctions at the UN, France and Western countries look good and further embarrass Russia who appear to block international initiatives consistently,” he said. “Requesting a new meeting serves a function without necessarily much purpose.”

For Sayigh, Russia, and even regional ally Iran, appear to be getting tired of Assad and they may eventually agree on a transitional arrangement in which he steps down completely. The Syrian population will likely suffer through new cycles of violence in the near future, but windows for more intense diplomacy will probably open up as well.

“France can’t do anything on its own,” Sayigh noted, adding that the country’s practical challenges included staying in tune with the United States and holding an honest dialogue with Syria’s fractured opposition.

Some members of the battle-weary opposition also looked ready to accept a less-than-perfect transitional arrangement that would exclude Assad but include some figures of the current regime.

So while France continues to blast Assad and draw attention to Russia at the UN, its critical role may be persuading Syria’s opposition to also move closer to a compromise position.

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