Syria launched a long-anticipated assault to crush the opposition in the rebellious north today, bombarding its main city with tank shells from all sides and clashing with rebel fighters struggling to hold back an invasion.
President Bashar Assad rejected any immediate negotiations with the opposition, striking a further blow to already staggering international efforts for talks to end the conflict. Assad told UN envoy Kofi Annan that a political solution is impossible as long as “terrorist groups” threaten the country.
The opposition’s political leadership has also rejected dialogue, saying talk is impossible after a year-long crackdown that the UN estimates has killed more than 7,500 people. That makes it likely that the conflict will continue to edge toward civil war.
Syrian forces have been building up for days around Idlib, the capital of a hilly, agricultural province along the Syria-Turkey border that has been a hotbed of protests against Assad’s regime.
This morning, troops blasted Idlib for hours with dozens of tank shells as the forces moved to encircle the town, an Associated Press team in Idlib reported.
Families fled their homes, carrying blankets and a few other meagre belongings. Others huddled in homes.
Rebel fighters rushed through Idlib’s streets, taking cover behind walls to fire on the attackers with automatic weapons, the AP team said. Trucks sped wounded fighters to clinics, and men on one street destroyed speed bumps with shovels so ambulances could drive faster. Many low-level soldiers in the area have joined the opposition and fight along with civilians who have taken up arms as part of the loosely organised Free Syrian Army.
Many fear the offensive in Idlib could end up like the regime’s campaign against a rebel-held neighbourhood in the central city of Homs. Troops besieged and shelled Baba Amr for weeks before capturing it on March 1. Activists say hundreds were killed, and a UN official who visited the area this week said she was “horrified” by the destruction in the district, now virtually deserted.
Late today, Idlib activist Fadi al-Yassin said the army had closed off the city’s main exits, making it harder for civilians to flee. Rebel fighters destroyed six armoured trucks in an ambush and shot down one helicopter with a high-calibre machine gun, he said.
Al-Yassin estimated that the city has as many as 1,000 fighters, but that they have mostly light arms and are short on ammunition. Most supply lines have been cut.
“The Free Army will be able to keep them out for a while, but if they cannot get more weapons and if the army keeps shelling from outside, they won’t be able to hold out,” he said.
“Right now their morale is very high,” he said. But, he added, “We worry that what happened in Baba Amr will happen here.”
Regime forces ambushed a group of rebels heading to Idlib to join the fight, killing 16, according to two activist groups – the Local Co-ordination Committees and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory said 17 civilians were killed in Idlib province today, among 28 killed nationwide. It said five other rebels were killed in fighting elsewhere, and that 19 regime troops were killed in Idlib and outside of Damascus.
The visit to Damascus by Annan, a former UN secretary-general, is the centrepiece of a high-profile international attempt to find a solution to the worsening conflict amid sharp divisions among world powers and Arab countries over how to deal with the crisis.
Annan planned a second round of talks with the Syrian president on Sunday, the UN spokesman’s office said in a statement.
Annan’s call for an immediate cease-fire and political dialogue has been dismissed as a non-starter by both sides. In his talks today with Assad, Annan put “several proposals on the table” for stopping violence, gaining access for humanitarian aid deliveries to Syrians and starting an “inclusive political dialogue,” the UN statement said.
Assad told Annan the plan was doomed “as long as there are armed terrorist groups that work to spread anarchy and destabilise the country,” according to Syria’s state news agency. The regime blames the uprising on terrorists serving a foreign conspiracy.