Assad forces prepare for key fight in Syria's biggest city


SYRIAN GOVERNMENT forces shelled areas of Damascus yesterday as alarm grew over the escalating situation in Syria’s most populous city, Aleppo, where the Assad regime has deployed fighter aircraft to dislodge rebels who claimed in recent days to control almost half the city.

The Syrian army continued to send reinforcements, including scores of tanks, to Aleppo, an important commercial centre, to stem the advance of opposition forces. The battle for Aleppo could prove to be a decisive one in the 16-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, with rebels saying they hope to turn the city, which is located less than 40 miles from the border with Turkey, into a hub for their activities.

Citing deteriorating security along the border, Turkey announced on Wednesday that it was sealing border crossings with Syria, though access will remain to Syrian refugees escaping the crisis. The exodus over the border has increased in the past week, with Aleppo residents fleeing alongside injured rebel fighters seeking medical treatment in Turkish border towns.

As alarm grew over Aleppo, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius urged Russia and China, who have both vetoed further action against the Assad regime, to act with the UN Security Council to prevent a “bloodbath”.

But Russia remains bullish, with its foreign minister yesterday arguing that calls by western and Arab nations for Mr Assad to step down were hampering efforts to resolve the conflict. Another Assad ally, Iran, vowed to stand by the regime. Its first vice-president, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, said Tehran’s support for Syria was “unchangeable”.

UN secretary general Ban Ki- moon, during a visit to Srebrenica, where UN peacekeepers failed to prevent the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995, warned the mistakes made in Bosnia must not be repeated in Syria.

“I don’t want to see any of my successors after 20 years visiting Syria and apologising for what we could have done now to protect civilians in Syria, which we are not doing,” he said.

There were reports of persistent shelling in southern neighbourhoods of Damascus yesterday morning. Sixteen people, including women and children, were killed as a result of rocket fire during an army offensive in Yalda, southern Damascus yesterday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Meanwhile, anxiety has grown in Turkey over reports of increased activity by Kurdish militants linked with the Kurdistan People’s Party (PKK) in northern Syria. Turkish media have shown pictures of Kurdish flags flying from buildings in the region.

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused the Assad regime of allowing the PKK to operate there and warned that Ankara would not hesitate to strike against them.

“It is not hard to predict that the PKK will strengthen its presence in this climate,” Fikret Bila, a columnist for Turkey’s Milliyet newspaper, wrote yesterday. If they take control of the region, he added, “it will be possible for (the PKK) to launch attacks into Turkey from the Syrian border.”