With the death toll in Syria soaring on Wednesday, the world began returning its
attention to the devastating civil war there after a week in which the
controversy over a US-made film denigrating the prophet Muhammad dominated
headlines around the Middle East.
In Damascus on a rare visit, Iranian
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on Wednesday that the solution to the
Syrian war lies “only in Syria and within the Syrian family,” according to SANA,
Syria’s state news agency.
The words were clearly the sort of message
that Syrian President Bashar Assad wants broadcast to the world, as he has
insisted that international attempts to broker a solution to the conflict amount
to foreign intervention in Syria’s internal affairs.
But it is not the
message that most of the international community is open to receiving, as the
civilian death toll mounts, rebels make gains and even the Syrian president’s
sister is reported to have fled the country.
Amnesty International said
on Wednesday that civilians, many of them children, are the main victims of a
campaign of relentless and indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian army. The group
released a briefing paper, based on firsthand field investigations carried out
in the first half of September, charging in a press release that there was
“fresh evidence of a pattern which has emerged in recent weeks in areas where
government forces, pushed into retreat by opposition forces, are now
indiscriminately bombing and shelling lost territory – with disastrous
consequences for the civilian population.”
Some 20,000 Syrians have died
in the conflict so far, the UN estimates.
“Government forces now
routinely bomb and shell towns and villages using battlefield weapons which
cannot be aimed at specific targets, knowing that the victims of such
indiscriminate attacks are almost always civilians. Such weapons should never be
used in residential areas,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International senior
crisis response adviser, who recently returned from northern Syria. “The plight
of the civilian population in this region of Syria has been under-reported as
world attention has largely focused on the fighting in Aleppo and
Amnesty recommended that the UN Security Council refer the
Syrian crisis to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, in order to
try Syrian officials for war crimes.
In the latest indication that
Assad’s inner circle is crumbling, his own sister, Bushra Assad, fled Syria with
The opposition website All4Syria and the pro-Syrian
Lebanese daily Ad-Diyar both reported that Bushra had fled from Syria to Dubai.
Her husband, Assef Shawkat, who was deputy chief of staff of the Syrian Armed
Forces, was killed by opposition forces on July 18, the Al Bawaba website
That attack also killed two other members of the government’s
six-member crisis council, and the president’s brother, Maher Assad, was
reported to have lost a leg in the bombing.
Iran has been Syria’s main
regional ally as the uprising, which began in March 2011 as an offshoot of the
Arab Spring, has intensified.
Tehran has been trying to find a solution
to the conflict that would minimize – if not eliminate – the role of Western
powers, and would help Iran win points across the Middle East.
for the first time, Iran acknowledged that it has a military presence in Syria
in the form of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Their commander, Muhammad
Ali Jafari, was quoted in the Iranian media as saying that a number of the
Guard’s Quds Force members are present in Syria and that they provide
“intellectual and advisory help,” according to Voice of America
Many across the Middle East, however, are critical of Iran’s
attempt at mediation.
Said an Egyptian commentator on BBC, whose words
were picked up and recirculated on Twitter: “The Syrian solution Iran is asking
for is for the people to protest, and the regime to kill.”
continued their advances on Wednesday when they seized their third border
crossing with Turkey, Reuters reported, following heavy battles overnight with
Reuters television footage showed a rebel tearing down
the Syrian flag on top of what appeared to be a customs building at the Tel
Abyad frontier gate. “I can confirm that the gate has fallen. It is under the
complete control of the rebels,” a Turkish official told Reuters. Rebels could
be seen celebrating on top of the customs building, and there was no sign of any
government troops at the crossing.
The rebels’ move is considered
significant in that it represents the first time insurgents tried to wrest
control of a border zone in Syria’s al- Raqqa province, most of which has
remained pro- Assad. Rebels now control two other crossings on the northern
border with Turkey.
Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is nearby.
another major development, the former head of Syria’s chemical arsenal said in
an interview in Turkey with The Times that the Syrian regime has plans to deploy
chemical weapons against its own people “as a last resort.”
Adnan Sillu, who defected from the Syrian army about three months ago after
participating in top-level talks about the use of chemical weapons on both rebel
fighters and civilians, said in the interview that chemical weapons were
discussed as an option.
“We were in a serious discussion about the use of
chemical weapons, including how we would use them and in what areas,” he told
The Times, referring to a meeting held at Syria’s chemical weapons center south
of Damascus. “We discussed this as a last resort – such as if the regime lost
control of an important area such as Aleppo.”
On Monday, the German
magazine Der Spiegel reported that the Syrian army had tested a chemical weapons
delivery system, firing shells at the Safira research center in Syria’s
northwestern desert region.
Reuters contributed to this report.