Assad forces regain grip on Syrian capital
ALEPPO, Syria – The government of Bashar al-Assad declared victory yesterday in a hard-fought battle for Syria’s capital, Damascus, and pounded rebels who control parts of its largest city, Aleppo.
Mr Assad’s forces have struggled as never before to maintain their grip on the country over the past two weeks after a major rebel advance into the two largest cities and an explosion that killed four top security officials.
Government forces have succeeded in reimposing their grip on the capital after a punishing battle, but rebels are still in control of sections of Aleppo, clashing with reinforced army troops for several days.
“Today I tell you, Syria is stronger . . . In less than a week they were defeated (in Damascus) and the battle failed,” foreign minister Walid al-Muallem said on a visit to Iran, Mr Assad’s main ally in a region where other neighbours have forsaken him. “So they moved on to Aleppo and I assure you, their plots will fail.”
Rebel fighters were clearly in control of parts of Aleppo, where journalists saw neighbourhoods dotted with Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoints flying black and white Islamist banners.
Helicopter gunships hovered over the city shortly after dawn and the thud of artillery boomed across neighbourhoods. Rebel fighters, patrolling opposition districts in flat-bed trucks flying green, white and black “independence” flags, said they were holding off Mr Assad’s forces in the southwestern Aleppo district of Salaheddine, where clashes have gone on for days.
Opposition activists also reported fighting in other rebel-held districts of Aleppo, in what could herald the start of a decisive phase in the battle for Syria’s commercial hub, after the army sent tank columns and troop reinforcements last week. Cars entering one Aleppo district came under fire from snipers and three bodies were lying in the street. Unable to move them to hospital for fear of shelling, residents had placed frozen water bottles on two of the corpses to slow their decomposition in the baking heat.
Other rebel-held areas were empty of residents. Fighters were basing themselves in houses – some clearly abandoned in a hurry, with food still in the fridges. A burnt-out tank lay in the street, while nearby another one had been captured intact and covered in tarpaulin.
In a largely empty street, women in black abaya cloaks walked with children next to walls daubed with rebel graffiti “Freedom”, “Free Syrian Army” and “Down with Bashar”. Rubbish lay uncollected. In one street, families were packing vans full of mattresses in apparent preparation to flee.
Near the centre of town, most shops were shuttered, some with the word “Strike” painted over them. The only shop doing business was a bakery selling subsidised bread, where the queue stretched around the block. Burnt cars could be seen in many streets, some with the word “shabbiha” marked on them – a reference to pro-Assad militiamen.
UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs Valerie Amos said 200,000 people had fled the fighting in and around Aleppo in the last two days, and the violence across Syria made it hard for humanitarian agencies reach them.“Many people have sought temporary shelter in schools and other public buildings in safer areas. They urgently need food, mattresses and blankets, hygiene supplies and drinking water.”
Late yesterday Syrian state television said soldiers were repelling “terrorists” in Salaheddine and had captured several of their leaders. – (Reuters)
CONFLICT RISKS: THREAT TO HERITAGE
THE PARIS-based International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) said yesterday it was “extremely concerned about the risks of any heavy conflict that may threaten the world heritage site of Aleppo and the other precious cultural heritage of the city”.
In a statement, the council said Aleppo was designated as a world heritage site by Unesco in 1986 as “an outstanding example of an Ayyubid 12th-century city”, with fortifications built following the victory of Saladin over the Crusaders. Recalling the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, it joined Unesco in calling on all parties involved in the Syrian conflict to respect and protect the cultural heritage of Aleppo.
It is also expressed concern about other world heritage sites in Syria, “including monuments, ancient cities and villages, archaeological sites, scientific excavations, museums and other important repositories of movable cultural heritage” because of the conflict.Icomos is a non-governmental, not-for-profit international organisation committed to the conservation, protection, use and enhancement of the world’s cultural heritage. FRANK McDONALD