Free Syrian Army members370.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BEIRUT - Syrian rebels advanced on the northern town of Khan
al-Assal on Saturday, activists said, and appeared close to seizing one of the
last towns in western part of Aleppo province still held by President Bashar Assad's forces.
The army has been attempting a slow build-up of troops
around the province in order to retake Aleppo city, once Syria's biggest
commercial hub. So far Assad's push has been dogged by rebel counter-attacks,
although a string of government victories elsewhere in Syria has shifted the
battlefield tide in his favor after more than two years of
Elsewhere in northern Syria, Assad's forces launched a third
day of heavy air strikes on the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province. The Syrian
Observatory for Human Rights said that by late afternoon, jets had already flown
12 raids over the town. Initial counts said five had been killed on Saturday,
three of them children.
Neighboring Idlib and Aleppo provinces are
regions in northern Syria that have become a stronghold for rebels fighting to
end four decades of rule by the Assad family.
It was unclear why Saraqeb
has been so heavily targeted, but some local activists suggested this was
retaliation for a rebel capture of a nearby army checkpoint.
posited that the army was trying to hammer areas near a critical road leading to
Aleppo in order to distract the rebels and be able to bring in supplies to its
Rebels have been blockading government-held areas in Aleppo city,
Syria's largest urban center. Aleppo has been mired in a bloody stalemate since
rebels launched an offensive in the province last year.
protests-turned-insurgency in Syria have killed more than 100,000 people since
March 2011, according to the Observatory, and have destroyed ancient buildings
and artifacts across the major Arab state.
Assad's forces have been on
the offensive since last month when the army, backed by militants from the
powerful Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, recaptured a border town near
Lebanon straddling supply lines between Damascus and Syria's
Hezbollah-backed Syrian forces have been bearing down hard on
rebel pockets around Damascus and other parts of the central province of Homs,
part of a strategy to cement control of a belt of territory between the capital
and his stronghold on the Mediterranean coast, before focusing on other
regions.BLAST IN DAMASCUS
While his forces seem to be nearing that goal
around Homs and on the outskirts of the capital, they have made little progress
around the northern and southern borders where rebels have a
Around Damascus, the army has made gains in the countryside but
has faced an uptick of rebel bomb attacks inside the capital in recent weeks.
The rebels often use car bombs and other explosives to hit at areas where they
have a weaker presence.
An improvised explosive device hit a central neighborhood of Damascus on Saturday, killing one person and wounding several
others, according to the Britain-based Observatory, which has a network of
activists across Syria.
Activists also said that several rockets hit the
central Abbassid Square of the city, damaging several buildings.
recent weeks the rebels have been making slow but persistent progress in Deraa
province in the south thanks to a fresh but intermittent influx of weapons
coming in from neighbouring Jordan.
In Aleppo, near the Turkish border,
hardline Islamist rebels - some of them linked to al Qaeda - appear to be
leading the fight to seize Khan al-Assal, according to activists in the area who
asked not to be named.
Western powers like the United States are alarmed
about the rising power of radical Islamist groups, particularly since Washington
has pledged to offer military support to Assad's opponents. No military aid has
been given yet due to political deadlock over the Islamist issue in the US
"Perhaps the Islamists are trying to stay out of the spotlight.
They've been regrouping and naming themselves with numbers, things like 'the 9th
Division' and so on, but these are the same Islamist radical groups like the
Islamic State of Iraq and Sham or the Islamic Front to Liberate Syria," one
opposition activist said, declining to be named.
Assad's forces have
responded to the rebel advance on Khan al-Assal with a string of air raids in
the area that set alight swathes of nearby farmland, according to the
It counted at least 12 soldiers and four rebels killed in
the latest fighting.