Monday, January 30, 2012

Assad troops fight back against Syria rebels

(Reuters) - Street battles raged at the gates of the Syrian capital on Monday as President Bashar al-Assad's troops sought to consolidate their grip on suburbs that rebel fighters had seized only a few miles from the centre of government power.

Fighting subsided by nightfall as members of the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army (FSA) pulled out to the edges of the capital's suburbs, activists said by telephone, adding they believed 19 civilians and six FSA members had been killed.

A diplomatic battle loomed in the United Nations, where the Arab League - backed by the United States, Britain and France - wants the Security Council to act on an Arab peace plan that would call for Assad to leave power.

Russia, a veto-wielding Security Council member and one of Syria's few allies, said Assad's government had agreed to talks in Moscow to end the crisis, but a major opposition body rejected any dialogue with him, demanding he step down.

The White House said countries needed to accept that Assad's rule was doomed, and stop shielding him in the Security Council.

"It is important that the Security Council take action," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "We believe that the Security Council should not permit the Assad regime to assault the Syrian people while it rejects the Arab League's proposal for a political solution."

"As governments make decisions about where they stand on this issue and what further steps need to be taken with regards to the brutality of the Assad regime, it is important to calculate into your considerations the fact that he will go," Carney said. "The regime has lost control of the country and will eventually fall."

A draft of the U.N. Security Council resolution, obtained by Reuters, calls for a "political transition" in Syria, and says the Security Council could adopt unspecified "further measures" if Syria does not comply with its terms.

Passing it would require convincing Russia and China to abstain rather than veto the draft, as they did previous drafts. So far Moscow has shown little sign of being persuaded.

"The current Western draft is only a step away from the October version and can by no means be supported by us," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told Interfax. "This document is not balanced ... and above all leaves the door open for intervention in Syrian (internal) affairs."

He said earlier on Monday that Moscow wanted to hear directly from observers sent by the Arab League before voting.

Yet despite Moscow's objections, some Western diplomats say they hope that Russia and China can be persuaded not to block the draft. An abstention by Russia and China last March paved the way for the Security Council to authorize force against Muammar Gaddafi's military in Libya, after the Arab League made clear it wanted action.

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby is to seek support on Tuesday for the Arab peace plan from the Security Council. He will be joined by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, whose country heads the League's committee charged with seeking a solution to the Syrian crisis.


Ten months into the uprising, fighting has entered a new phase in recent weeks, with government forces losing control of parts of the country, including a town on the Lebanon border where rebels are ensconced.

Yet Assad's forces appear to have decisively beaten back an attempt by the opposition to march on the outskirts of Damascus.

Activists and residents said Syrian troops now had control of Hamouriyeh, one of several districts where they have used armored vehicles and artillery to push back rebels who came as close as 8 km (5 miles) to Damascus.

An activist said the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - a force of military defectors with links to Syria's divided opposition - mounted scattered attacks on government troops who advanced through the district of Saqba, held by rebels just days ago.

"Street fighting has been raging since dawn," he said, adding tanks were moving through a central avenue of the neighborhood. "The sound of gunfire is everywhere."

Rebels are risking heavier clashes and speaking of creating "liberated" territories to force diplomatic action. In the past three weeks they have taken Zabadani - a town of 40,000 in mountainous near the border with Lebanon.

"God willing, we will liberate more territory, because the international community has only offered delayed action and empty threats," said a lieutenant colonel who had defected to the FSA but declined to be named.


Russia's Foreign Ministry said Syria agreed to Russian-brokered negotiations over the crisis, but senior members of the council that claims to speak for a fragmented Syria opposition said there was no point in talking to Assad, who must quit.

"We rejected the Russian proposal because they wanted us to talk with the regime while it continues the killings, the torture, the imprisonment," Walid al-Bunni, foreign affairs chief for the Syrian National Council, told Reuters.

Activists say more than 100 people have died in three days of fighting in Damascus suburbs.

The escalating bloodshed prompted the Arab League to suspend the work of its monitors on Saturday. Arab foreign ministers, who have urged Assad to step down and make way for a government of national unity, are due to discuss the crisis on February 5.

Syria's state news agency said six soldiers died in an attack near Deraa in the south and "terrorists" blew up a gas pipeline. Pipelines have often been targeted in the uprising.

The state news agency SANA has reported funerals of more than 70 members of the security forces members since Friday.

Residents of Deraa - where anti-Assad unrest first flared - said firefights between army defectors and government troops killed at least 20 people, most of them government forces.

In Homs, the central Syrian city that has seen heavy attacks by Assad's forces and sectarian reprisal killings, residents said government troops backed with armor fought rebels near its marketplace.

Syria limits access for journalists and the details of events could not be immediately verified.

After mass demonstrations against him erupted last spring, Assad launched a military crackdown. Growing numbers of army deserters and gunmen have joined the protesters in a country of 23 million people at the heart of the Middle East.

The insurgency has crept closer to the capital. The suburbs, a string of mainly conservative Sunni Muslim towns known as al-Ghouta, are home to the bulk of the 3 million population of Damascus and its outlying districts.

State television read out a statement from the Interior Ministry calling the events there a sweep against terrorists.

The Damascus suburbs have seen large demonstrations demanding the removal of Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated the mostly Sunni Muslim country for the last five decades.

The rebel force said on Monday medicine and blood were running low in field hospitals, some set up in mosques, and that advancing government forces were carrying out mass arrests.

Iran, Syria's regional ally and once unconditional supporter of Assad's crackdown, said Assad must be spared foreign interference to enact promised constitutional reforms.

The United Nations said in December more than 5,000 people had been killed in the protests and crackdown. Syria says more than 2,000 security force members have been killed by militants.

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