Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Syrian rebels gain more ground in the north

BEIRUT — Rebel fighters in Syria said they had taken control of a strategic town on the Turkish border Tuesday, as the international envoy to Syria said in Damascus that he had yet to receive any response from President Bashar Assad to proposals he delivered to halt the country's deepening war.

During an hourlong meeting with domestic dissidents, the envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, declined to discuss the substance of any proposals, according to Hassan Abdel Azim, one of six people who attended the meeting. The envoy said only that "he discussed offers proposed by regional, international and opposition figures," Abdel Azim said.

"There was no reply on behalf of Assad," he added.

Some Syrian opposition members, citing meetings with Brahimi before he traveled to Damascus on Sunday, said they had expected him to push a plan that would keep Assad in power temporarily while stripping him of much of his authority. Some also had expected Brahimi to tell the Syrian president that he was running out of time to make a deal to leave the country safely.

The prospects for a breakthrough seemed dim. Many opposition figures have said they would oppose any deal that would allow Assad to remain in power. And a senior member of Assad's Baath Party said Tuesday in Damascus that it was unlikely that the president would accept any offer that curbed his power and prevented him from running in future elections.

Regarding international proposals for a unity government of current officials and members of the opposition, the party member told the New York Times that Assad "will accept a national coalition government, but under his command."

The party member said the only hope for a deal would require Russia and the United States to agree on its outlines and require Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to press rebel groups they support to stop fighting.

Brahimi's visit to Damascus was not announced beforehand, reflecting security concerns as the fighting draws nearer to the seat of the government's power. In the past week, emboldened rebel groups have pushed aggressively to capture territory in the capital's suburbs and near the city of Hama, in west-central Syria.

Heavy fighting was reported Tuesday in the eastern suburbs of Damascus and north of Hama, where government forces and rebels have been fighting each other from neighboring villages. In a statement Tuesday, the Syrian state news agency said the army was "inflicting heavy losses" on armed groups in the area.

In northwestern Syria, rebels said they had wrested control of Harem, on the border with Turkey, after months of fighting. In October, a Reuters photographer traveled with the rebels as they came under attack from government warplanes and snipers. The photographer witnessed ferocious street battles and scenes of brutality, including what appeared to be at least one summary execution of a government loyalist by rebels.

Amateur video posted on the Internet on Tuesday showed rebel fighters strolling through a medieval citadel in the town, gazing up at its stone arches. Government fighters, who had used the fortress as a base, had apparently departed in a hurry, leaving their bedding, pots and pans, a boot and a helmet behind.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels captured Harem in the early hours Tuesday. Mohammed Kanaan, an Idlib-based activist, said the last post to be taken was the historic citadel, which overlooks the town.

"Harem is fully liberated now," Kanaan said via Skype.

In Aleppo province, which neighbors Idlib, local activist Mohammed Saeed said rebels attacked a military base in the town of Mannagh near the border with Turkey.

Regime forces have been using helicopters to carry supplies to besieged areas and to attack rebel positions.

The regime has had increasing difficulty sending supplies by land to Aleppo province after rebels captured in October the strategic town of Maaret al-Numan. The town is on the highway that links Damascus with Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial center and a major battleground in the civil war since July.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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