Syrian rebels fought for control of the country’s border crossings as clashes spread to the city of Aleppo, the latest sign of an escalating conflict that is driving thousands to escape to neighboring countries.
Aleppo intelligence chief Major General Mohamed Muflih defected to Turkey, Al Jazeera television reported, citing unidentified people. Syrian security forces killed 131 people today including 28 in Damascus, the Local Coordination Committee, an opposition group, said in an e-mailed statement.
Syrian rebels seized the al-Yarubiya crossing to Iraq, Sumaria News reported, citing an unidentified Iraqi official. Iraq closed the Rabeia crossing to Syria after rebels captured the Syrian section, Al Arabiya television said.
Farhan Iftekhan, the mayor of al-Qaim city in western Iraq where Syrian rebels seized the Bukmal crossing, said in a telephone interview, “The Bukmal crossing is still under the Syrian rebels’ control for the third day. Clashes and fights between rebels and state forces break out usually every night but state forces have failed to retake it so far.”
“Iraqi troops have boosted their presence there and we have closed the crossing with concrete walls” to stop anyone from entering Iraq, Iftekhan said.
Surge of Refugees
Lebanon and Iraq struggled to cope with the surge of refugees fleeing the violence. After a failed attempt at the United Nations to sanction President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the Security Council voted yesterday to remove in 30 days unarmed monitors who have been confined for weeks to their Damascus hotel rooms because of the danger.
Dr. Nabil Zughaib, head of the Syrian missile program, was killed with two members of his family in Damascus today by Syrian rebels, Iranian state-run al-Alam television reported.
Zughaib was killed with his wife and son while driving in the Christian neighborhood of Bab Toma, and his other son was hospitalized in critical condition, al-Alam said.
Syrian rebels seized the town of Rwehina, about 1,400 meters from Israeli troops in the Golan Heights, Al Arabiya reported, citing activists. The Free Syrian Army rebels seized government forces’ weapons in Rwehina, the television station said. The Israelis captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel this week limited all military leaves to guard against growing instability in Syria.
As chaos engulfed the nation, Assad’s opposition battled to take three border crossings with neighboring Turkey and one with Iraq. The government is resorting to more brutal tactics, with state television reporting “purging” in rebel hideouts.
More than 30,000 Syrians fled to Lebanon via the Masnaa border within 48 hours, with cars backed up for a kilometer (0.6 mile) and Lebanese security officials waiving the usual paperwork requirements, the Beirut-based Daily Star reported.
About 125,000 Syrians have left the country since the 18-month conflict began, and as many as 500,000 people still in Syria have been displaced from their homes, the U.S. State Department said July 19.
Even with UN-led peace efforts in tatters, Western nations said Assad’s days were numbered. Those numbers are getting “smaller and smaller,” Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said yesterday.
President Barack Obama praised the determination of people in the Middle East and North Africa to achieve democracy and their universal rights in a statement celebrating the start of Ramadan yesterday. “The United States continues to stand with those who seek the chance to decide their own destiny, to live free from fear and violence, and to practice their faith freely,” Obama said in the statement.
The Assad government held state funerals yesterday in Damascus for top security officials killed in a bomb attack this week as it seeks to reassert itself in a city that until recently had been spared the worst of the violence.
Among the four victims of the July 18 blast, Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, Defense Minister Dawoud Rajhah and the vice president’s military adviser, Hasan Turkmani, were the most senior officials to die since the uprising began.
Syrian troops are moving chemical weapons across the country in preparation for their use, Reuters reported today, citing General Mustafa Sheikh, who defected to Turkey. The weapons are being moved from storage, possibly in retaliation for the July 18 attack, the general told Reuters in an interview, citing rebel intelligence obtained in recent days.
Two generals and two colonels in the Syrian military were among 160 Syrians who crossed the border into Turkey seeking refuge, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported today.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group, said in an e-mail today that 190 civilians were killed in the country yesterday, including 63 in Damascus and 19 in Deraa. At least 43 Syrian soldiers were killed, it said. Troops shelled Aleppo, where “dozens of missiles fell in the city, and many houses were destroyed and flattened,” the Local-Coordination Committees, another opposition group, said. Five explosions were heard in Aleppo early today, the LCC said.
The civil war is splitting the country along increasingly sectarian lines, with a Sunni Muslim-led opposition confronting a government whose top officials are drawn from the Alawite sect, affiliated to Shiite Islam.
Russia, which on July 19 used its veto for a third time to protect Syria from UN sanctions, said its envoy in Paris had been misunderstood when he told French radio that Assad would be willing to go if it was arranged in a “civilized manner.”
“Only the Syrian people can decide the fate of Syria, including that of its leadership,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Hopes for a peaceful outcome to the crisis have evaporated, said Aram Nerguizian, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“What was possible nine months ago, became difficult six months ago and intractable three months ago,” he said. “Now we’re heading straight toward chaos.”