Monday, February 19, 2018

Rebels take over key border crossings

BEIRUT — Rebel fighters in Syria, building on the momentum gained by their assassination of three top security officials a day earlier, seized all four border crossings with Iraq and one into Turkey on Thursday, while also claiming for the first time to have captured a pocket of Damascus after intense fighting.

The government fought back hard, with no indication that its far superior military machine had lost its edge against an opposition still working predominately with small-caliber weapons. Helicopters blasted the northern Damascus suburb of Qaboun with rockets, while the armed forces warned residents of a wide area of the southern part of the capital to evacuate. Thousands of people fled to neighboring Lebanon.

"They threatened them and gave them 24 hours to leave their homes or they will be shelled," said Ali Salem, an activist reached via Skype. Even residents in the western Damascus neighborhoods of Mezze and Kafr Souseh, who were not warned, fled in droves as shells thudded into their neighborhood from military positions on Qassioun mountain above Damascus.

But the government tried to project an aura of calm, even as it unleashed its forces in a manner similar to the devastating assaults on restive cities like Homs, where neighborhoods were effectively flattened and all the residents driven out.

President Bashar Assad appeared for the first time since the bombing attack Wednesday that killed three senior security officials. The Syrian leader showed up on state television to swear in the new defense minister to replace the one assassinated in a bomb attack.

The ceremony for Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij — the broadcast showed the two men interacting without any sound — appeared to take place in one of the presidential palace's reception rooms.

Wire service reports said Assad had fled to Latakia, the coastal city where he has a home, just one of the many rumors swirling around the capital. One opposition activist said that only the women and children of the Assad family had flown to the coast — not unusual for a hot July weekend.

Russia, China veto third U.N. resolution

UNITED NATIONS — Russia and China again vetoed a Western-backed U.N. resolution Thursday aimed at pressuring President Bashar Assad's government to end the escalating civil war in Syria, sparking dire warnings of even greater bloodshed and spillover to the wider region.

The 11-2 vote, with abstentions from South Africa and Pakistan, was the third double veto of a resolution addressing the crisis.

The key stumbling block was the West's insistence that a new resolution be drafted under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which could eventually allow the use of force to end the conflict, and threaten non-military sanctions against the Syrian regime if it didn't withdraw troops and heavy weapons from populated areas within 10 days.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the resolution should never have been put to a vote because the sponsors knew it had no chance of adoption.

The defeat leaves in limbo the future of the 300-strong U.N. observer mission in Syria, which was forced to suspend operations because of the intensified fighting. Its mandate, to monitor implementation of international envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, expires today.

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters history will judge the Russians and Chinese "harshly," saying their vetoes at a time when the conflict is deteriorating rapidly "threatens to engulf the region in a wider war."

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