Syrian Rebels Battle for Aleppo After Seizing Border Posts

Syrian rebels are battling government forces in the city of Aleppo after seizing some of the country’s border crossings as the escalating conflict drove thousands to escape to neighboring countries.

Rebel leaders with the al-Tawhid Brigade said in a video sent to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that their military offensive to seize Aleppo has begun, according to a statement posted on the U.K.-based rights group’s Facebook page today. Rebels gained control of three neighborhoods in the city and government forces intensified shelling of the city, Al Jazeera television reported.

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are battling to save his government after rebel fighters took the fight to Damascus and Aleppo and seized border posts with Turkey and Iraq. The Syrian army’s inability to end an armed rebellion that has killed more than 17,000 civilians in the past 17 months is raising concern about the government’s ability to protect its stockpiles of chemical weapons.

Syrian security forces killed 37 people today, Al Arabiya television reported, citing activists. Foreign ministers from the Arab League were holding crisis meeting in Doha today, Nile News reported.

Aleppo Fighting

Armed clashes are taking place near the al-Zabadia police station and the immigration and passport building in Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its Facebook page. Battles are raging in the Aleppo neighborhoods of Saif al-Dawla, al-Jameeliya and al-Meridian, it said.

Syrian forces caused “heavy losses among the terrorists,” destroying three pick-up trucks equipped with machine guns during clashes with armed groups in Qebtan al-Jabal to the north of Aleppo, the Syrian Arab News Agency said, citing an unidentified source. The Syrian army killed five rebels, including two non-Syrians, in the Hayyan area, it said.

Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s largest cities, had been spared the worst of the violence until recently, as government forces waged fierce battles in provinces such as Homs and Hama. The two cities are home to merchants and wealthy Assad supporters who have benefited from their close ties to the administration.

The Syrian Arab News Agency today published images of Assad meeting with Chief of General Staff of the Army and the Armed Forces, General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub. During the meeting, Assad give him his orders, the news service said.

Chemical Weapons

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said today that Israel can’t accept any movement of sophisticated weapons from Syria to Lebanon, where the Shiite Hezbollah is based.

“We can’t say anything more than this,” Barak said in comments broadcast on Israel Army Radio. “Not when we will act, not how we will act and not if we will act.”

Israel must be prepared for the possibility that Syria’s chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah or al-Qaeda elements, Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad said today.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on July 18 that the Assad regime was responsible for ensuring the safety of chemical weapons.

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.

Bukmal Crossing

The Bukmal border crossing is under rebel control for a third day, according to Farhan Iftekhan, the mayor of al-Qaim city in western Iraq. “Clashes and fights between rebels and state forces break out usually every night, but state forces have failed to retake it so far,” he said in a phone interview.

“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.

Lebanon and Iraq struggled to cope with refugees fleeing the violence. After a failed attempt at the United Nations to sanction 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.

Town Seized

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 leave to guard against growing instability in Syria.

Opposition fighters also 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.

Dr. Nabil Zughaib, head of the Syrian missile program, was killed with two members of his family in Damascus yesterday by 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.

Border Crossings

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.

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