Government troops fought back rebels near the airport of battle-scarred Aleppo, Syria’s state media said today, in the first official acknowledgement that combat had neared a strategic gateway to the country’s largest city.
As fighting raged in both Aleppo and the Syrian capital, Damascus, the United Nations announced that Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and veteran UN diplomat, would serve as the world body’s new peace envoy, aiming to resume efforts for a diplomatic solution to what has become an intractable civil war.
Mr Brahimi, who previously served as envoy to Iraq and Afghanistan, replaces former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who announced he would leave the post by the end of this month after failing to bring about a ceasefire despite months of negotiations.
The announcement came as UN observers in Syria were beginning to pack up in preparation to close down their mission. Deployment of the observers was one of the only steps taken under Mr Annan’s peace plan. The team was intended to watch over a ceasefire which never took hold, and so was left trying to chronicle some of the more egregious instances of bloodshed.
Both sides have “chosen the path of war”, said the UN’s assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, Edmond Mulet. The UN plans to keep a small liaison office to support any future peace efforts.
The 17-month-old conflict between President Bashar Assad’s regime and rebels trying to bring him down has left some 20,000 people dead, according to estimates by anti-Assad activists.
The escalating fight has in the past two months turned to battles in the country’s two main cities, Damascus and Aleppo – once firm bastions of Mr Assad’s rule. Rebels have managed to keep fighting in both cities despite facing overwhelming regime firepower.
In Damascus, activists reported heavy shelling and clashes in many areas today, including western districts believed to have rebel pockets. Damascus-based activist Moaz al-Shami described the shelling as “non-stop” and said gunners were firing from the Qassioun mountains overlooking the city.
Regime forces have been fighting for nearly a month to crush the rebels’ footholds in Aleppo, in the north of the country. Rebels have been driven from some areas, but the report of clashes near the airport suggests the battles could be shifting to new fronts.
Syria’s official Sana news agency said “armed terrorist groups” – the regime’s phrase for rebels – had been pushed out from areas on both sides of the airport, which is about nine miles (15km) south-east of Aleppo’s historical centre.
The report did not make clear whether the fighting was closer to the international airport or the adjacent military airfield, a base for carrying out air strikes on rebel sites in the north.
Aleppo has major symbolic and strategic value. It is the commercial hub of northern Syria and close to rebel-held territory and critical supply corridors to the Turkish border.
Rebels have sought control of the ancient centre, dominated by a medieval castle which is part of the city’s Unesco World Heritage Site. That would deal an embarrassing blow to the regime’s claim that its overwhelming firepower can halt opposition advances.
“Those who think that the Syrian Arab army will be defeated are dreaming,” said Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in a state TV interview late yesterday.
Civilians, meanwhile, have been increasingly caught in the crossfire, and many are fleeing to safety in nearby Turkey.
UN refugee agency spokesman Adrian Edwards said 3,500 people crossed into Turkey on Tuesday and Wednesday. He told reporters in Geneva that there are now almost 65,000 Syrians in nine refugee camps in Turkey, about 40% of them new arrivals this month. In Jordan, nearly 2,700 Syrians have entered since Tuesday, swelling the numbers there to more than 150,000.
Beyond the refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries, the UN’s humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, estimated that as many as 2.5 million people inside Syria need relief assistance.
The core of Mr Assad’s military and political power appears to remain in place, but major cracks have emerged in the wider reaches of his regime. They include high-level military and political defections and the ability of rebel guerrillas to stage bombings and abductions in the heart of Damascus.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who visited Syria’s neighbours Jordan and Lebanon this week, told France’s Europe-1 radio today that he was told “there will be new defections on a large scale”. He gave no other details.
Mr Fabius also defended France’s refusal to send weapons to the Syrian rebels, despite their appeals for military help. He claimed rebel backers Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others are sending arms to the rebels – although there has been no evidence of sharply enhanced military firepower by the anti-Assad forces.
“We Europeans decided on an arms embargo,” he said. “We are not going to contradict our own positions.”
In Lebanon, tensions from Syria have spilled over into the volatile patchwork of factions backing the rebels and others firmly behind Mr Assad’s regime, such as the Iranian-backed militant and political group Hezbollah.
In the most prominent incident yet, a powerful Shiite Muslim clan claims to have taken more than 20 Syrian nationals and a Turk hostage in retaliation for the seizure of a family member by rebels in Syria this week. The clan said yesterday that it was calling off “military operations” and would halt abductions for now.
Another captive was taken by unknown gunmen. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said a Turkish truck driver, Abdel Basit Erslan, was seized as he was driving in the Beirut suburb of Choueifat. It was unclear who was behind the abduction last night.
The US and Turkey issued security warnings for Lebanon.
On its website, the US Embassy called on its citizens to take extra security precautions, adding that it had received reports of a higher chance of attacks on US nationals. Kidnapping, it added, was another possible threat. The embassy also announced the suspension of the Fulbright and the English Language Fellow student exchange programmes.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry also advised its citizens to avoid all non-essential travel to Lebanon and urged Turks already in the country to take safety precautions.
Arab Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE this week called on their citizens to leave Lebanon immediately.