Monday, January 22, 2018

Syrian rebels step up attacks on strategic sites

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria's rebels stepped up attacks on strategic sites including a sprawling military complex in the country's north on Friday, while reports emerged that President Bashar Assad's forces continued to fire Scud missiles at rebel areas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told European leaders that Russia does not seek to protect Assad but that only a negotiated solution can end the conflict — an outcome that looks unlikely as rebels make gains.

While few observers expect Syria's 21-month-old conflict to end soon, most say steady rebel advances appear to be tipping the balance in favor of those fighting to topple Assad's regime.

Activists reported rebel attacks on strategic government sites in northern Syria on Friday, with the rebels trying to cut government supply lines, free up roads and seize arms from bases.

Near the northern city of Aleppo, rebels clashed with government forces at a sprawling military complex by the town of Al-Safira, activists said.

An activist in the town said the complex contains military factories, a scientific research center that produces chemical weapons as well as an air defense and an artillery base.

Rebels seized the artillery base this week and have been trying to seize the air defense base, said Hussein, who gave only his first name for fear of retribution.

The town's proximity to the facilities has cost it dearly, he said. Government airstrikes often target civilian areas, and more than two-thirds of the town's residents have fled, fearing the regime will use chemical weapons.

Bilal Saab, head of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, confirmed that the complex at Al-Safira houses a chemical weapons production facility but said it is unclear if such weapons have been stored there ready for use, or if rebels would even be able to use such weapons.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said seven rebels were killed in clashes in the area on Friday. It said nearly two dozen more died in a government airstrike this week after they captured a military warehouse.

Activists also said rebels had launched attacks on a number of military targets near the central city of Hama.

Activist Mousab Alhamadee said rebels had seized five army posts in the last two days near the town of Morek, which straddles the country's primary north-south highway north of Hama.

NATO's top official said that Syria has continued to target rebel areas with Scud-type missiles. Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmusen called the attacks "acts of a desperate regime approaching collapse."

One of the Scuds apparently hit the rebel town of Marea, near Aleppo. An activist who goes by the name Abu al-Hassan said Friday he was awoken the day before by the largest explosion he'd ever heard in the town.

Al-Hassan said the missile fell in a field, causing no casualties.

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