07/31/12 By Austin Tice

DAMASCUS, Syria — My disguise was at least six sizes too small: a scarf, a veil and a black gown known as a niqab that was supposed to reach the ground, but didn’t. It would have to do.

"Come on," my guide said impatiently. "Like this. You’re a woman, not a man."

I tried to pull my shoulders in, looking down at the ground in my best, very poor impression of a conservative Arab woman. Nothing about my 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame was discreet.

My guide gestured: "Checkpoints there and there, left and right." I raised my eyes in the direction he pointed, and quickly decided that I’d rather just look at the ground. My guide took my hand and led me out onto the six-lane highway we’d be crossing on foot. I was at least 6 inches taller than he was.

We made it across the highway and met up with a waiting truck. I climbed into the cab and nodded without comprehension as the driver fired off a string of questions. I thought he might be asking me where I wanted to go. I mumbled my best answer: “To the Free Army in Damascus." I hoped that it was enough.

I’d been trying for weeks to get into Damascus. The rebels I’d been traveling with had promised over and over again that we’d be there soon. Finally, after days of turning me down, they agreed to let me try to get in.

This would be no triumphant entry, however. Government troops seemed to have beaten back, at least for now, the rebel offensive that erupted after a bomb killed four senior military advisers to President Bashar Assad nearly two weeks ago. Finding myself in the capital made me re-evaluate the rebel’s prospects for a victory soon. The city is huge, just huge, and taking it will be an enormous undertaking.

But first, I had to get in.

We wound our way through the hills that form the capital’s northern border, down into the suburbs below. Through my veil I watched what seemed to be bustling city life around us. The government seemed completely in control

We pulled off to the side of the road, and a man I’d never met opened my door. "Come with me." He led me to his car. Another woman – a real one – was in the passenger seat. She looked about as uncomfortable as I felt. We drove through the Damascus suburb in silence. Finally the driver stopped. "There. Checkpoint. You walk."

I stepped out of the car into the sweltering heat, utterly conscious of my oversized hands and feet protruding from my ridiculous garb. Another man, a new one, led the way. One foot in front of the other. Nothing for it now but to walk, and hope. I hadn’t felt this many eyes on me since the first day of high school. I kept my gaze locked on the ground. One foot in front of the other.

From somewhere behind us – close – an authoritative command sliced through the ridiculous charade. “Stop!” My guide quickened his pace. “You, stop!” I didn’t turn to look, but whoever it was couldn’t have been more than 20 feet behind us. We kept going.

Two shots rang out in quick succession, chipping the plaster off a wall to our right. My guide shouted in English, “Go, go, go!” I didn’t have to be told. My feet already were flying.

Damascus Olympics.

The street was agonizingly long and murderously straight. More shots. I didn’t bother to try to figure out where they landed. We cut a hard left, dived down some stairs and found ourselves in a tunnel-like back alley. “Go, go, go!” From their doorsteps, women and children looked up at us curiously as we pounded past.

Suddenly the alley dumped us into a crowded, bustling intersection. From the corner of my eye I could make out the checkpoint we’d so poorly attempted to evade. “Now, walking,” my guide said. I tried, and failed, to resume my charade and quiet my breathing. I sucked huge gulps of hot Damascus summer air through the sickly sweet perfume of my veil. I bumped into a woman; she looked up at me pointedly. I wasn’t fooling anyone.

We were across the intersection. Time to run again. “Go, go, go!”

Finally we saw our car. It had passed through the checkpoint unsuspected. I dived through the propped-open door as the driver floored it. A few minutes later, my breathing was almost under control. We pulled over and “Abu Mohammad,” the mastermind of this harebrained scheme, was waiting for us. He greeted me warmly. “Take that thing off,” he laughed. “It does more harm than good.”

Driving through downtown Damascus, Abu Mohammad was in high spirits. He pointed to a walled compound on our left. “That’s the Mukhabarat, the secret police. Want to go see it?” I demurred. “No problem.” He pointed off in the distance. “Over there, Bashar’s house. For now.” He got quiet. “We’re going through a checkpoint. Small one. Don’t look at the regime army.” Packed in bumper-to-bumper traffic, we made it through the checkpoint unchallenged. “Good, good,” he said, visibly relaxing. “Now we’re fine.”

Picking up speed on the highway, Abu Mohammad pointed to the blackened facade of an official-looking building. “A few months ago, there was a bomb here. And last week, fighting.” A few traffic circles later, Abu Mohammad said the words I’d been waiting to hear. “It’s safe now. This neighborhood is free. That guy behind us is Free Army.”

In the safe house, iftar – the sundown meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – was being set out. The gathered fighters laughed and joked, the not-too-distant sounds of artillery and automatic weapons fire punctuating their conversation. Our host smiled: “Welcome to Damascus.”

Source: McClatchy
Photo: Reuters
08/01/12 By Anita McNaught

Events are unfolding fast in Aleppo City. The more information that emerges, the more complex the picture becomes.

On Tuesday, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) executed a member of parliament from Aleppo named Zeino al-Barri. 

The activists we are working with say that the FSA are closing in on the headquarters and operations of the "Shabihain Aleppo". Up until now, I believed Shabhia meant loosely affiliated bands of paramilitaries-cum-gangsters who were mostly, but not exclusively Alawites - the same Shia sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. These thuggish-looking types with shaved heads, big beards and steroid-loaded biceps, immortalised in self-portraits on Facebook, did - and still do - some of the nastiest work of the regime, including slaughtering and beating opponents. 

Shabiha, according to several sources, are the delinquent sons of the Alawite community. Their business is crime: Smuggling and robbery. They deal in cigarettes, stolen cars, drugs and alcohol. When they saw something they wanted, they took it at gunpoint. And they were untouchable. You could not lay charges against them and the other security services would not control them. Since the uprising began, activists say there have been no limits on their brutality. 

But the term "Shabiha" has broadened since the uprising started 17 months ago in Syria. Now it covers all the "unlicensed" enforcers doing the dirty work of the regime. They commit crimes that can be officially denied by Damascus. The state then blames Shabiha actions on the work of the "armed gangs".

Family business

Here in Aleppo, activists tell me, the Shabiha are not Alawite - they are Sunni - and they are often members of a tribe called Barri. I can't verify the following information myself, as I am moving around Aleppo province. 

The story I am told goes like this: The Barri family is a big, old Sunni tribe, originally from areas on the outskirts of what is now the South East of the modern city -  Bab al-Nayab.  This family originally made their money from sheep, then some of them went into the smuggling business, dealing first with pharmaceuticals then moving into the lucrative trade in illegal narcotics.  

These days in Aleppo they are seen as the second, shadowy arm of the state. Some of them were jailed for drugs crimes, but so enormous was their turnover that even inside jail they kept their operations going, ending up as influential drug lords - behind bars.

At the beginning of the uprising, the Assad regime allegedly did a deal with some members of the Barri family, offering them amnesty in return for loyalty and putting this drugs mafia at the service of the state. And - I'm told -  they were given arms and salaries to stay loyal. 

Activists tell me they are responsible for assassinations, robberies, extortion against wealthy Aleppo business people for funds "to suppress the revolution", hostage -taking and the attacks on students at Aleppo University.

Now - apparently - the FSA are closing in on the family; they have already taken and killed the head of the family Zeino al-Barri and one of his brothers or cousins. 

This man is an MP in the Syrian Parliament, assigned a seat in this year's elections. The parliamentary seat is widely seen as a 'reward' for his services to the regime since the uprising. 

Assessments here say that his killing will cause great consternation among the security services in Damascus, let alone Aleppo, who counted on this family to do much of their dirty work. 

Source: Al Jazeera

07/31/12 By Kim Sengupta

Ambushes and air strikes, sieges and executions were the bloody order of the day in Aleppo today as rebel and regime forces fought street by street to gain possession of Syria’s largest city.

The violence, and expectation of more destructive strife to come, added to the sense of fear and the growing stream of refugees fleeing their home.

While continuing resistance against armour and artillery in the districts of Salheddine and Hamdaniyeh, opposition fighters took the offensive in other areas; a series of police stations and posts were overrun with the defenders captured in some cases, but also a large number shot dead, with sizeable amounts of arms and ammunition seized.

The rebels, too, were in the gunsight of the enemy with regime troops sending salvos of mortar rounds and missile strikes from helicopter-gunships and, on at least two occasions, from a warplane. A new dynamic was also introduced into a conflict already deeply divisive and sectarian with a militia from the Al-Barre tribe, chanting their loyalty to Basher al-Assad, carrying out an assault near the city’s airport which killed 16 revolutionary fighters and cleared, for the time being, a road through which soldiers and supplies can be brought in from Damascus.

However, the capture of the security stations at Bab Al-Nerab, Al-Miersa and Salhain and, with that, the control of the adjoining neighbourhoods meant that the rebels were making incremental territorial gains. On each occasion helicopter-gunships appeared later to carry out strafing, but there was no sign of a ground forces coming in to retake the positions.

None of the bases were taken easily, with the defenders fighting hard. They were not just police officers, but members of the Mukhabarat — the secret police — and also the Shabiha, the paramilitary drawn from regime loyalists. Both groups had been accused of carrying out abuses, including torture and rape, in the campaign to suppress the uprising, and summary justice appeared to have been meted out in some instances with corpses showing bullet wounds to the backs of their heads.

Asked at Bab Al-Nerab whether any of the officials had been shot after surrendering, a young rebel grinned: “They did not surrender, they were caught”. This was disputed by an annoyed older fighter, Syed Abdul-Qadar, who insisted that all the deaths had taken place in the course of combat. “But at the airport the Barre killed people who had their hands tied behind their back” he added.

The bodies of the 20 officials lay at various parts of one police station which had caught fire when Kalashnikov shots set alight flammable liquid inside. The head of the rebel unit which had carried out the attack, Omar Abdel Aziz Hatteh, said: “We offered them the chance many times to surrender. But the Colonel in charge here refused to let any of his men come out and stay alive. He kept screaming at us on the telephone, using disgusting language.”

The body of Lieutenant Colonel Maklesh El-Ali was later put on the back of a pick-up truck and taken for a little tour around the city. “He was an evil man, he treated us like we were dogs” said Nouri Hassan al-Batme. Apartments in the building where he lived with his family, facing the station, had been commandeered by the security officials to position snipers during the shoot-out.

“They didn’t care what could have happened to us” said Mr Batme, a 47 year old contractor. “This regime does not care for its people. I have a brother, Faisal, who was arrested 32 years ago, we haven’t seen him since. This Colonel was a brutal man, he arrested me over a family matter 10 days ago and beat me on the feet with a stick. He also hit me so hard on the head that I cannot hear properly in one of my ears.”

Mr Batme and his family of six are moving out of their apartment for the time being because his wife was terrified of a helicopter attack. But he was apprehensive: “With no one here the thieves could come in and take things. We haven’t got a police station any longer, who is supposed to be doing their job?”

The storming of the station at al-Marju in Salhein was carried out by over 700 fighters; the 45 strong security detachment inside resisted before a bomb made out of a water storage container and TNT was bodily flung over the sandbags by two volunteers. Fifteen of the regime officials were killed, the rest arrested, except four who got away. “They were snipers, three of them were Iranians, the other was a Russian,” maintained Abdel Rahman Moussa, one of the rebels. “The Russian must have been valuable, right at the end they sent 200 soldiers to get him out. We keep on hearing about Russians and Iranians, also we think come Hezballah people are here as well.”

Rumours of foreign mercenaries in the pay of Assad, as well as the imminent launch of chemical weapons, were rife in the city, with no detectable for either. Also absent were the hundreds of foreign Islamists who, according to some Western media reports, have descended to raise the flag of al-Qa’ida and jihad in Aleppo.

“Where are they? The Chechens, the Africans and the Pakistanis, all with so many weapons?” Asked Abu Suleiman, a rebel officer, crouching down in an alley as an attack on a fourth security post, near Sher Osman, predominantly manned by the Shabiha, was faltering due to ammunition running out and what appeared to be a Mig-23 dropping ordnance. “We can do with them. No, not them, their weapons. That is going to be a problem very soon unless we start getting fresh supplies coming through. That may happen, the routes in the east have opened up.”

The rebels spent some of their last Kalashnikov ammunition providing covering fire as families fled from the street, a little girl crying until she was reunited with her pet Myna bird in a cage. As they made their way out an elderly man hobbled over to the fighters to offer his thanks. Or so they thought: “You people are destroying this country, have you no shame? I am 83 years old and I have seen nothing like it, even when we were fighting the French. Basher al-Assad is a great man, he is the President”, with that Mohammed Ibadullah Seif, leaning on his stick, rejoined his family.

“Can you believe that! Here we are risking our lives to free the country and that’s what the man says,” Abu Suleiman spread his hands as the fighters around him laughed. He shouted: “Go with Basher then if you love him so much, old man. But you would not wish to go the place where we are sending him.”

Source: Independent
07/30/12 By Kim Sengupta

Three of the bodies were stuffed in a meat refrigerator which had been without power for more than a week; one had his hands tied in what looked like an execution position, another had almost made it to the door to escape when he was shot through the chest. These were soldiers of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's regime, killed as they tried to flee from a base under siege from rebel fighters.

The breakout by the troops, abandoning their camp early yesterday morning, gave precious advantage to the revolutionary fighters in Aleppo being battered by artillery, tanks and helicopter-gunships for the past 48 hours. The fall of the camp in the satellite town of Al-Bab removed one of the main obstacles to reinforcement and supplies desperately needed in the city.

Inside Aleppo, rebel fighters appeared yesterday to have partly stemmed the advances by regime forces after falling back from the first wave of assaults directed against their positions. The response was more shelling in Salaheddin district, in the south-west, which had been controlled by the opposition, and fresh clashes broke out in Bab al-Nasr, Bab al-Hadid and the Old City.

Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi of the opposition's Free Syrian Army (FSA) claimed: "We have destroyed eight tanks and some armoured vehicles and around 100 soldiers. But there have been a lot of civilians killed, mainly due to air attacks. We want the UN to impose a no-fly zone. We don't need ground intervention; brother fighters will be going to Aleppo. We need protection for civilians."

Abdelbasset Sida, pictured, the exiled head of the Syrian National Council (SNC) opposition alliance, called for foreign powers to arm the rebels with heavy weapons to fight Assad's "killing machine", which claimed victory in a fierce battle for the Syrian capital Damascus yesterday. He said the SNC would also soon begin talks on forming a transitional government.

But Iran's foreign minister, at a joint press conference with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moualem, described the idea of a managed transition of power as an "illusion". Mr al-Moualem said Damascus was still committed to the Kofi Annan-backed peace plan.

The retreat of the regime forces from the Al-Bab base has provided an element of protection for the town, which has been relentlessly pounded by shelling and air strikes called in by the base – salvoes sent seemingly randomly into residential areas, killing and maiming, driving others from their homes.

Residents celebrated their deliverance; large crowds made their way to the former agricultural school which had been commandeered, to gaze at hastily abandoned meals, at uniforms discarded by soldiers who had changed into civilian clothes in an effort to escape unnoticed if their convoy was ambushed. Later, liberated tanks and artillery were driven through the streets, to prolonged cheering.

Many of the weapons left behind in Al-Bab can be sent to Aleppo, along with volunteers to join the fighting. Major Yusuf al-Hadeed said: "We already have men fighting in Aleppo and I know that many more want to join them."

Not all the troops managed to get away - around 20 were captured and are now being held by the revolutionaries. "We were woken up at three in the morning and told to hurry, we were leaving the camp" said Sergeant Alla Abu Warda, one of the prisoners. "The officers were in the tanks and armoured cars in the front. We were in pick-ups right at the back and that is the reason we got caught. The officers had given us no leadership all the time we were getting attacked. They just told us to save ourselves if we could."

Source: Independent
07/31/12 By Ivan Watson

Northern Syria (CNN) -- Syrian rebel fighters fought to control a key road to the Turkish border and turned captured tanks against a government air base north of Syria's largest city on Monday.

The tanks came from the rebel seizure of an army outpost outside Aleppo, the scene of heavy fighting for more than a week. Rebel troops overran the outpost early Monday and were hauling out tank shells and crates of ammunition by afternoon.

The outpost was a restaurant outside the town of Anadan, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of Aleppo, that had been commandeered by government troops and surrounded by earthworks. Rebels were putting the captured armor to work Monday by shelling an air base outside Azaz, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) farther north, said Ahmed Afesh, a commander with the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Afesh showed off two Soviet-era T-55 tanks captured by his men Monday, as well as an armored personnel carrier and the smoldering wreckage of another destroyed during the fighting. Rebel fighters and civilians greeted him with handshakes and kisses.

The rebels also have been able to establish growing enclaves in northern Syria and made attempts to seize a number of key border crossings last week. They already control much of the main western highway from Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital and largest city, to the Turkish border. And after the overnight battle outside the town of Anadan, traffic moved freely on a road that had been too dangerous for motorists days before.

But fighting continued inside Aleppo on Monday. U.N. observers reported the use of helicopters, tanks and artillery in the city, the head of the international monitoring mission, Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye, said Monday. And opposition activists said government forces used helicopter gunships to launch rocket attacks on rebel fighters.

At least 85 people were killed across Syria on Monday, including 25 in Aleppo, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria.

There were conflicting reports on who controlled the major Aleppo neighborhood of Salahuddin, which rebels had claimed days earlier. Both opposition fighters and the regime said they had taken over Salahuddin, where Al Jazeera correspondent Omar Khashram was wounded during heavy fighting Monday.

A cameraman and driver working with Khashram, who was being treated in a hospital in Turkey, told CNN that shrapnel from a shell penetrated gaps in the correspondent's flak jacket.

About 200,000 people in and around the city have fled shelling and heavy weapons fire in the past two days, Valerie Amos, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said Sunday.

In several neighborhoods, those who remained were left without phone, Internet or electricity service as tanks shelled the city, according to Deama, an activist in the city. CNN isn't using her full name because disclosing it could put her in danger.

"We're afraid they are going to do something worse. Usually, they will cut off connections and isolate these neighborhoods more when they are about to make something worse," Deama said Monday.

Residents also faced bread and flour shortages, she said. Bakeries were shuttered.

"This is like punishment from the regime. They want to make people hungry," she said.

Protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled the country for more than 40 years, began in March 2011. Security forces launched a violent crackdown on peaceful protests that has been met by increasingly stiff resistance, with large numbers of government troops joining the opposition.

The conflict has now claimed nearly 17,000 lives, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week, while opposition activists put the toll at more than 20,000.

In Iran, one of Syria's few remaining allies, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem vowed Monday that the rebels would not take Aleppo.

"Since last week, (opposition fighters) planned for whatever they called the 'great Damascus battle,' but they have failed after one week," Moallem said, referring to a rebel offensive beaten back earlier this month. "That's why they moved to Aleppo, and I can assure you that they will fail."

In Turkey, where more than 43,000 Syrians have taken refuge since the crisis began, two convoys of Turkish troops, including tanks, were seen moving into the border town of Kilis. A high-ranking police official from the Syrian city of Latakia defected to Turkey on Monday, as well as 11 other Syrian officers, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said.

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country will take more action to try to stop the bloodshed when it assumes the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.

"We are going to ask -- before the end of the week -- for a meeting of the Security Council, probably at a ministerial level ... to try and stop the massacres and prepare for the political transition," Fabius told French RTL radio on Monday.

In London, the top diplomat at the Syrian Embassy resigned his post, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office said. Charge d'Affaires Khaled al-Ayoubi told British officials that he was "no longer willing to represent a regime that has committed such violent and oppressive acts against its own people," the office said in a statement.

In Washington, the White House said President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan "shared their growing concerns about the Syrian regime's ruthless attacks against its own people, most recently in Aleppo, and the deteriorating humanitarian conditions throughout Syria as a result of the regime's atrocities" in a telephone call Monday.

"The two pledged to coordinate efforts to assist the growing numbers of displaced Syrians, not only within Syria, but in Turkey and the broader region. The president acknowledged the generosity of the Turkish people in hosting so many Syrians who have fled their homes in search of safety in Turkey."

And in Tunisia, his first stop on a visit to the Middle East, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CNN that al-Assad "knows he's in trouble, and it's just matter of time before he has to go."

Asked what he'd say to the embattled Syrian leader, Panetta said, "I would say if you want to be able to protect yourself and your family, you better get the hell out now." Sunday, he predicted that the crackdown in Aleppo will prove "a nail in Assad's coffin" by turning even more people against the government.

The United States is providing nonlethal aid to the rebels, including communications gear. Other countries are providing more direct miltary aid, "So there is no question that one way or another, they are getting the support they need in order to continue this fight," Panetta said. 

Source: CNN

In the wake of his first field visit, during which he witnessed heavy shelling, the acting head of UN observers in Syria today met with Government officials and called for an end to the fighting that has wracked the Middle Eastern country, in addition to voicing concern about ongoing combat taking place in the city of Aleppo.“It was a good opportunity for me to discuss UNSMIS activities in the coming 20 days. I stressed the need for all sides to end the bloodshed – Syrians killing Syrians – and for all sides to commit to political dialogue,” the UN Military Adviser, Lieutenant General Babacar Gaye, told a press conference in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

“I explained to the Government that our activities will be focused around the mandated task of resolution 2059. We will be monitoring the level of violence and the use of heavy weapons in Syria” he added. “We will also be assessing if there is readiness and, if possible, progress for local confidence-building measures and national dialogue. This, of course, hinges on UNSMIS being provided the space, security and access to fulfil its mandate.”

Lieutenant General Gaye took over the leadership of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) last week, following the departure of Major-General Robert Mood.

Around half of the military observers serving with UNSMIS have been sent home, with the Mission operating on a reduced basis in a reduced number of locations. The move follows the Security Council’s recent extension of UNSMIS’ mandate – under resolution 2059 – for a final period of 30 days, with any further renewals possible only if it can be confirmed that the use of heavy weapons has ceased and a reduction in violence by all sides is sufficient to permit UNSMIS to implement its mandate.

Established in April, the Mission had suspended its regular patrols due to the escalating violence, in which over 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed and tens of thousands displaced since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began some 16 months ago. Over recent days, there have been reports of an escalation in violence in many towns and villages, as well as Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s second-biggest city.

On Sunday, Lieutenant General Gaye took part in his first field visit since assuming the acting leadership of UNSMIS, paying a visit to the cities of Homs and ar-Rastan to assess the situation, including the use of heavy weapons. While there, he also met with the provincial Governor and members of the Free Syrian Army to try to “gauge their readiness for local engagement and dialogue.”

“During my visit to Homs, I was personally able to witness heavy shelling, from artillery and mortars, ongoing in the neighbourhoods of the city,” Lieutenant General Gaye said. “Ar-Rastan was heavily damaged by an intensive shelling campaign and fierce fighting. There were damaged tanks left on the side of the streets; public infrastructure, such as bridges, was destroyed; and homes on the main roads inside the town were largely damaged.”

He added, “I did see families, women and children in some inner neighbourhoods of the town, in addition to a few shops open, selling food.”

In his remarks to reporters, the acting UNSMIS chief also expressed his concerns about Aleppo, which, according to reports, has been subjected to intense fighting between Government and opposition forces over recent days.

“My observers there have reported an upsurge in the violence, with helicopters, tanks and artillery being used,” Lieutenant General Gaye said. “I call on the parties, again as stated by the Joint Special Envoy, to exercise restraint and avoid further bloodshed – it is imperative that both sides respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians.”

UNSMIS is tasked with monitoring the cessation of violence in Syria, as well as monitoring and supporting the full implementation of the six-point peace plan put forward by the Joint Special Envoy for the UN and the League of Arab States for the Syrian Crisis, Kofi Annan.

That plan calls for an end to violence, access for humanitarian agencies to provide relief to those in need, the release of detainees, the start of inclusive political dialogue, and unrestricted access to the country for the international media.

Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency today said it had received reports of around 200,000 people fleeing the fighting in Aleppo, with many of those people displaced within other parts of Syria, which has made humanitarian access to them difficult.

“They are very few who reached Turkey… this could have a number of reasons. It might be very difficult to pass the roads leading to Turkey. So it’s very difficult to say right now what the people of Aleppo are going through. As soon they cross we will be talking to them,” a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Melissa Fleming, said today.

She also noted the difficulties involved in estimating the number of refugees, as the total number reflects only those people who come forward and register or ask for assistance.

Source: UN News Service


President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone yesterday "to coordinate efforts to accelerate a political transition in Syria," the White House said.

This "would include the departure of (Syrian leader) Bashar al-Assad and be responsive to the legitimate demands of the Syrian people," the statement said.

Obama and Erdogan shared their concerns over the Syrian regime's crackdown on opposition "and the deteriorating humanitarian conditions throughout Syria as a result of the regime's atrocities." Both promised to coordinate efforts to help the growing numbers of Syrians displaced by the violence within Syria or forced to flee over the border to take refuse in Turkey or other nations in the region.

The statement said US and Turkish teams "would remain in close contact on ways that Turkey and the United States can work together to promote a democratic transition in Syria." Ankara has become a champion of the uprising against Assad's Syrian regime and has given refuge to large numbers of army defectors, who have formed the kernel of a rebel army, as well as tens of thousands of civilian refugees.

Some 44,000 Syrians fleeing unrest in their homeland have already flooded refugee camps in Turkey, and Obama paid tribute to Turkish generosity.

Meanwhile government forces strafed rebel-held districts in Aleppo with helicopter gunships on Monday and pounded them with shelling on the third day of a pitched battle for Syria's commercial capital.

The fighting has sent some 200,000 civilians fleeing the northern city, according to the UN, which warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe, while France said it would call an urgent UN Security Council meeting on Syria.

Source: Hurriyet Daily News
07/27/12 By A Special Correspondent

DAMASCUS — Even as forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-
Assad reassert control over much of Damascus, residents of the capital say they feel increasingly distant from the government they have long supported and are confident that it will eventually fall.

A major assault last week by Assad’s forces pushed rebel fighters from much of Damascus, and heavy shelling, day and night, has continued here this week, unsettling a city that had been isolated from the violence seen elsewhere in the country during the 16-month uprising.

On the streets of Damascus, there are thick plumes of smoke rising from rubble, the sounds of helicopter gunships in the air and long lines to buy bread. In the past week, residents who had been sharing their homes with Syrians who fled to the capital to escape the violence have been forced to flee themselves. More than a million people have been displaced by the fighting in Syria, according to data from the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

“We have feelings of hatred towards the regime now which will never get washed away,” said a 62-year-old man who owns four houses in the capital but thinks none of them is safe enough to stay in. Like others, he did not give his name because he was concerned about the possible consequences.

Some Damascus residents who have returned to their homes have been forced to confront the deadly results of the violence.

In the Midan neighborhood, where government forces took control after nearly a week of heavy fighting, “two whole families were slaughtered” in a public square, said a 30-year-old resident. Homes were demolished, shops looted and his house was broken into by security forces who went door-to-door after the fighting, the man said. “We can’t stay in Midan. There is no life anymore.”

The 30-year-old said he worked as a government servant and had been paid to break up anti-Assad protests by shocking demonstrators with electric prods. But he said any loyalty he felt to the government has disappeared. “How can you work for a government which shelled and destroyed your neighborhood?” he said.

These days, discussions of politics are routine, and many, especially the city’s older residents, are comparing Assad’s current tactics with those of the French occupation of Syria, from 1920 to 1946. Some here say the old occupiers showed more mercy.

The regime “ is like Nero who burned Rome,” said a retired civil servant and father of four.

The rebel Free Syrian Army enjoys strong support in many parts of the capital, including in the southern part of the city and the northern district of Barzeh. Fighters are cheered by young people when they enter restive areas, and residents of Midan said their neighbors gave them food and water as they passed through.

But as the rebel fighters have come and gone, people here say they feel abandoned by the rest of the world.

“The Syrian people are facing the tragedy on their own,” said the 62-year-old, noting that even human rights groups have stayed away. “It is shame on the entire international community to witness the ongoing massacres [in Syria] and do nothing.”

With no outside intervention likely, people have taken security into their own hands. Young men armed with long sticks and knives are often seen outside their homes through the night, guarding their neighborhoods from possible attacks by the pro-government shabiha militia.

As more and more Syrians experience the violence, people here say it is becoming increasingly difficult for Assad and his government to carry on, though they acknowledge it could take months for the opposition to prevail.

“The fall of the regime is inevitable,” said the 62-year-old, who worked as a civil servant for more than 30 years. “It cannot continue.”

This story was reported by a Washington Post special correspondent in Damascus whose name is being withheld for security reasons.

Source: Washington Post

Photo: Reuters
07/31/12 AFP

While fighting raged in Syria's commercial capital Aleppo for a fourth straight day on Tuesday, clashes between the Syrian army and rebels also erupted in Damascus and other parts of the country, a watchdog said.

The battles in the capital were focused in the southern districts of Tadamun, Kazaaz and the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmuk, and were sparked when rebels firing rocket-propelled grenades at military checkpoints, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Residents two weeks ago fled Tadamun and the Yarmuk camp in the face of a large scale offensive by regime troops to "cleanse" Damascus of rebels before the start of Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

On the outskirts of the capital, clashes erupted after midnight on the road to Halbun, while shelling was reported in nearby Qudssaya, and in New Artuz, the Britain-based Observatory reported.

For its part, the Syrian Revolution General Council reported raids by regime troops in the Damascus district of Jubar and that military checkpoints had been set up in several areas of the city.

Local Coordination Committees, made up of activists on the ground, reported shelling by helicopter gunships of the Zamalka district -- adjacent to Jubar -- throughout the morning.

Elsewhere in Syria, clashes erupted in multiple districts of eastern Deir Ezzor city, including near a police station, while one civilian was killed by sniper fire, the Observatory said.

In the southern province of Daraa, a camp for displaced persons came under shelling by regime troops, who battled for hours with opposition fighters.

The town of Tafas and al-Ghariyeh also came under shelling, leaving an unknown number of casualties, while in Hara, regime forces arrested six people.

Clashes and the sound of explosions were reported at the University of Idlib and another neighbourhood in the northwest city.

In Aleppo province, a defected soldier was killed in clashes with the army, while fighting raged in several districts of Aleppo city, including on the outskirts of the rebel-stronghold of Salaheddin and near a police station in Salhin.

The Observatory said violence across the country on Monday saw 93 people killed -- 41 civilians, 19 rebels and 33 soldiers.

More than 20,000 people have been killed in Syria since the start of the revolt in March 2011, according to the Observatory. This number is impossible to independently verify.

Source: AFP/Ahram Online

Photo /Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/GettyImages
07/31/12 By Erika Soloman

ALEPPO — Syrian helicopter gunships and artillery pounded two key areas of Aleppo on Tuesday, extending the army’s campaign to control the country’s biggest city, but rebel fighters said troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had been forced to retreat.

Heavy gunfire sounded from the Salaheddine district in the southwest of the city, where rebels denied they had been driven out by the army. Attack helicopters turned their machineguns on eastern districts for the first time in the latest fighting.

The army said two days ago it had taken Salaheddine, but Syrian state television said on Tuesday government forces were now pursuing the remnants of a group of “terrorists” there, in an indication that the army did not after all have full control of the area.

A rebel commander in Aleppo said his fighters’ aim was to push towards the city centre, district by district, a goal he believed they could achieve “within days, not weeks”.

The rebels now control an arc that covers eastern and southwestern districts.

“The regime has tried for three days to regain Saleheddine, but its attempts have failed and it has suffered heavy losses in human life, weapons and tanks, and it has been forced to withdraw,” said Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi, head of the Joint Military Council, one of several rebel groups in Aleppo.

It has not been possible to verify independently who controls Salaheddine, a district that lies on a major road that the army could use to bring reinforcements into the city.
Oqaidi told Reuters late on Monday more than 3,000 rebel fighters were in Aleppo, but would not give a precise number.

The battle for Aleppo has become a crucial test for both sides in the 16-month-old rebellion. Neither Assad’s forces nor the rag-tag rebels can afford to lose if they hope to prevail in the wider struggle for Syria.

A Syrian rebel fighter loads an anti-aircraft machinegun in the northern town of Atareb, 25 kms east of Syria's second largest city Aleppo, on July 31, 2012.

The fighting has proved costly for the 2.5 million residents of Aleppo, a commercial hub that was slow to join the anti-Assad revolt that has rocked other cities, including the capital, Damascus.

While rebels say they will turn Aleppo into the “grave” of the Assad government, thousands of residents have fled the city and those who remain face shortages of food and fuel and the ever-present risk of injury or death.

“We have hardly any power or water, our wives and kids have left us here to watch the house and have gone somewhere safer. said Jumaa, a 45-year-old construction worker, who complained it was nearly impossible to observe the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, now in progress.

”I would say 99.9 percent of the people aren’t fasting. How can you fast when you hear mortars and artillery hitting the areas nearby and wondering if you will be next?“ he said.

Makeshift clinics in rebel-held areas struggle to deal with dozens of casualties after more than a week of fighting.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 100 people, 73 of them civilians, were killed in Syria on Monday. It said five rebel fighters died during clashes with Syrian forces in Salaheddine.

Rebel fighters, patrolling in pick-up trucks flying green-white-and-black ”independence“ flags, face a daunting task in taking on the well-equipped Syrian army, even if the loyalty of some of its troops is in doubt.

Armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades they face a military that can deploy fighter jets, helicopter gunships, tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, artillery and mortars.

Rebels have captured a small number of tanks and armoured vehicles but they do not seem to have used them in combat yet.

Against a background of divisions among major powers over Syria, U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan discussed in a telephone call how they could work together to speed up political transition in Damascus.

Erdogan, who once enjoyed close ties with Assad, has become one of his fiercest critics and has demanded he step down.

”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,“ Erdogan’s office said.

Turkey hosts more than 40,000 Syrian refugees, many of them in border camps where they complain of poor conditions.

Amid growing concern about security on its frontier, Turkey sent at least four heavily armed military convoys to the border with Syria on Monday, although there has been no indication that Turkish forces will cross into its neighbour.

Source: Reuters/National Post