Syrian rebels fought for control of the country’s border crossings as clashes spread to the city of Aleppo and the escalating conflict drove thousands to escape to neighboring countries.
Rebels gained control of three major neighborhoods in Aleppo and government forces intensified shelling of the city, Al Jazeera television reported. The network said Aleppo intelligence chief Major General Mohamed Muflih defected to Turkey, among 24 high-ranking Syrian military officers who have left the country.
Syrian security forces killed 131 people yesterday including 28 in the capital of Damascus, the Local Coordination Committee, an opposition group, said in an e-mailed statement.
Farhan Iftekhan, the mayor of al-Qaim city in western Iraq where Syrian rebels seized the Bukmal crossing, said in a telephone interview yesterday, “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.
Muhaiman al-Taie, a spokesman for the Syrian free Army, the main opposition group, told al-Arabiya in an interview late yesterday that the rebels were close to gaining control of the Syrian city of Qamishly near the Turkish border.
Surge of Refugees
Lebanon and Iraq struggled to cope with refugees fleeing the violence. After a failed attempt at the United Nations to sanction President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the Security Council voted July 20 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 yesterday by Syrian rebels, Iranian state-run al-Alam television reported.
Zughaib died 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 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.
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.
More than 30,000 Syrians fled to Lebanon via the Masnaa border, 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 July 20.
The Assad government held state funerals July 20 in Damascus for top security officials killed in a bomb attack two days earlier. Among the four victims, 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 were moving chemical weapons across the country in preparation for their use, Reuters reported yesterday, 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.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement that continued fighting in Damascus forced thousands of residents to seek refuge elsewhere in the country or in neighboring nations. An estimated 11,800 Damascus residents have sought shelter in about 60 schools in rural areas outside the city, the Red Cross said.
Continuing violence in the city has isolated neighborhoods, making it “progressively more difficult for people to move” about the city, Marianne Gasser, head of the International Red Cross Committee’s delegation in Syria.
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.
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.”