- U.S. State Department said reports of tank columns moving on Aleppo, along with air strikes, represent serious escalation of Assad’s efforts to crush rebellion
- Warning comes as former head of UN monitoring mission in Syria said it is just a matter of time before Assad’s government falls because its use of massive force is mobilising insurgents
By Graham Smith
PUBLISHED: 07:40 EST, 27 July 2012 | UPDATED: 10:07 EST, 27 July 2012
Insurgents targeted army roadblocks and security installations, with both sides avoiding close-quarters warfare in the northern city of 2.5million people.
The U.S. State Department said credible reports of tank columns moving on Aleppo, along with air strikes by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, represented a serious escalation of Assad’s efforts to crush a rebellion that began 16 months ago.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: ‘This is the concern – that we will see a massacre in Aleppo, and that’s what the regime appears to be lining up for.’
Troops stationed on the outskirts of the city unleashed barrages of heavy-calibre mortar rounds on the western neighbourhoods of Saladin, al-Sukkari and al-Fardos, while Russian-built MI-25 helicopter gunships struck al-Sakhour in the east with rockets, opposition activists in the city said.
The heavy fighting around Aleppo follows an audacious bomb attack that killed four of Assad’s closest lieutenants in Damascus on July 18 and led some analysts to speculate that the government’s grip was slipping.
General Robert Mood, the former head of the UN monitoring mission in Syria, said it is just a matter of time before Assad’s government falls because its use of massive force is mobilising insurgents.
The Norwegian general, who left Damascus on July 19, said: ‘In my opinion it is only a matter of time before a regime that is using such heavy military power and disproportional violence against the civilian population is going to fall.
‘Every time there are 15 people killed in a village, 500 additional sympathisers are mobilised, roughly 100 of whom are fighters.’
However, the authoritarian Syrian leader is probably secure in the short-term because he has the military capability to hold off the rebels and his eventual fall could be months or even years away, General Mood said.
He said: ‘In the short-term it may very well be possible for him to (hold on), because the military capabilities of the Syrian army are much much stronger than those of the opposition.
‘The minute you see larger military formations leaving the ranks of the government to join the opposition, then that is when it starts accelerating… This could last for months or even years.’
In the first reported casualty today, a man of about 60 wearing a traditional white prayer outfit was killed near a park in Saladin. His body was placed in a mosque pending identification.
Thirty-four people were killed in and around Aleppo yesterday, according to opposition activists.
Activist Abu Mohammad al-Halabi, speaking by phone from the city, said: ‘The rebels have so far been nimble, and civilians have mostly been the victims of the bombardment.
‘There is lots of internal displacement, and schools have been turned to makeshift shelters that are packed. One shell hitting a school will result in a catastrophe.
‘The regime is massing troops and tanks at the entrances of Aleppo, but it seems it is for now content with bombarding the city, with the rebels constantly on the move.’
Majed al-Nour, another activist, said rebels attacked a security outpost in the neighbourhood of Bustan al-Joz, which is close to the Aleppo city centre, on Thursday.
He said tens of thousands of people had fled Aleppo to nearby northern rural regions close to Turkey from which the Syrian army has withdrawn in recent weeks to focus on urban areas where relatively lightly armed rebels have hunkered down.
With U.N. Security Council resolutions for sanctions against Syria vetoed by Russia and China for a third time last week, the U.S. has said it is stepping up assistance to Syria’s fractured opposition, although it remains limited to non-lethal supplies such as communications gear and medical equipment.
According to the Reuters news agency, the White House has crafted a presidential directive, called a ‘finding’, that would authorise greater covert assistance for the rebels, while still stopping short of arming them.
It is not clear whether President Barack Obama has signed the document, and U.S. officials declined to comment on the finding, which is a highly classified authorisation for covert activity.
In another development, it today emerged that a Syrian parliamentarian representing the northern province of Aleppo said she had defected to Turkey, becoming the first member of the rubber-stamp assembly elected in May and dominated by Baath Party to defect.
She said: ‘I have crossed to Turkey and defected from this tyrannical regime… because of the repression and savage torture against a nation demanding the minimum of rights.’
One of the most senior figures to defect from Assad’s inner circle, Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, has put himself forward as someone who could help unify the opposition inside and outside Syria on a plan for a transfer of power.
Tlas, speaking in a newspaper interview in the Saudi city of Jeddah, also said he was looking for support from Saudi Arabia and other powers.
He told yesterday’s edition of Asharq al-Awsat: ‘I am discussing with… people outside Syria to reach a consensus with those inside.’
Tlas went on to Turkey and met Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Turkey, a former ally of Assad and now one of his fiercest critics, has a heavy strategic stake in shaping any post-Assad leadership in neighbouring Syria.
Tlas appeared briefly with Davutoglu at an official guest house but made no statement.
Turkey closed its border posts with Syria on Wednesday to all traffic except Syrian refugees.
Russia, one of the few remaining allies of the authoritarian Assad, whose family has run Syria for 42 years, said calls for him to quit power were hindering efforts to end the conflict.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said such calls, led by the U.S., Turkey and other Western and Arab nations, were fanning violence. He reiterated Moscow’s contention that support for Syrian rebel groups was tantamount to backing terrorism.
Germany said Russian and Chinese backing for Syria was a big problem.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told German television: ‘For this reason we urge them to recognise that the time of the Assad regime is over.’
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2179822/U-S-fears-endgame-massacre-Syrias-biggest-city-UN-general-says-Assad-regime-fall-time.html#ixzz21q1zbby7