Assad vows to crush rebellion following defection
SYRIAN PRESIDENT Bashar al-Assad vowed yesterday to crush the 17-month old rebellion and cleanse the country of what he termed terrorists as clashes between his troops and rebels continued in Aleppo.
Seeking to reassert his authority after the defection of his prime minister, the president was shown on television meeting a senior Iranian official.
It was the first footage broadcast of the 46-year-old leader for two weeks, and came a day after Syria’s new caretaker prime minister was shown on television chairing a hastily convened cabinet session, possibly to rebut reports that other ministers had deserted along with former premier Riyad Hijab.
Saeed Jalili, head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said Iran would not allow its close partnership with the Syrian leadership to be shaken by the uprising or external foes.
“Iran will not allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way, Syrian television quoted him saying.
The “axis of resistance” refers to Shi’ite Iran’s anti-Israel alliance with Syria’s rulers – from the Alawite faith which is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam – and the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006 with Iranian and Syrian support.
In Damascus for a surprise visit after the kidnapping at the weekend of what Iran said was a busload of 48 pilgrims to the Saida Zeinab shrine revered by Shias, Mr Jalili said Iran “believes in a Syrian solution based on national dialogue among all Syrian groups to settle the country’s issues, and does not consider foreign involvement useful”.
The kidnappers maintain the captors are members of Iran’s revolutionary guard deployed on a reconnaissance mission.
However, several of the men are well beyond military age. Three were reported killed in an air strike, prompting the captors to warn that the rest would be executed if the military did not halt operations in the district in which they are being held.
Iran’s parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, blamed the US and its regional allies for the deaths of the Iranians. Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi travelled to Ankara to enlist its assistance in freeing the abducted Iranians. Turkey hosts, arms and trains Syrian rebels.
Government forces bombarded areas of Aleppo held by rebels, who said they were running low on ammunition. Juliet Touma, spokeswoman for the UN monitoring mission, said its 24-member Aleppo team had been pulled out of the city due to the “deteriorating security situation.”
“The Syrian army is trying to encircle us from two sides of Salaheddine,” said Sheikh Tawfiq, one of the rebel commanders, referring to the southwestern neighbourhood which has seen heavy fighting over the last week.
Syrian state media reported troops fought with “terrorists” and inflicted heavy loses in Aleppo and Damascus.
Mortar fire and tank shells exploded across Salaheddine early yesterday, forcing rebel fighters to take cover in crumbling buildings and rubble-strewn alleyways.
Tanks have entered parts of the district and army snipers, using the cover of heavy bombardment, deployed on rooftops, hindering rebel movements.
Another rebel commander, Abu Ali, said snipers at the main Salaheddine roundabout were preventing the rebels from bringing in reinforcements and supplies. He said five of his fighters were killed on Monday and 20 wounded.
But rebels said they were still holding the main streets of Salaheddine, which have been the frontline of their clashes with Assad’s forces.
A fighter jet pounded targets in the eastern districts of Aleppo and artillery shelling could be heard in the early morning, an activist in the city said.
Amnesty International published satellite images from Aleppo showing the build-up of troops and armour around the city and of the nearby town of Anadan depicting “more than 600 probable artillery impact craters”.
The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union party, an affiliate of Turkey’s main Kurdish rebel group, warned Ankara not to intervene in the affairs of northeastern Syria, where Kurdish militia have assumed control of a number of towns and villages.
Syria’s main pharmaceutical firms have been forced to halt production, causing severe shortages of drugs for treating chronic diseases and war casualties, the World Health Organisation reported. Before the crisis, Syria produced 90 per cent of its medicines but their manufacture has been cut dramatically by fighting, the lack of raw materials due to sanctions, and rising fuel costs, the agency said.
Furthermore, most of the pharmaceutical plants are located in the countryside around Aleppo, Homs and Damascus, where fighting has been concentrated.
More than 200 ambulances belonging to the health ministry have been hijacked or destroyed. – (Additional reporting Reuters)