Syrians fear executions as fighting intensifies

West slams third Russia, China veto of UN Security Council resolution to impose sanctions.

Syrian President Bashar Assad 370 (R) (photo credit: Sana / Reuters)
Syrian President Bashar Assad 370 (R)
(photo credit: Sana / Reuters)
Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad continued to attack opposition fighters on Thursday, in response to the bombing a day earlier that killed Assad’s brother-in-law, defense minister and a top general.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday that residents feared mass executions after regime forces stormed the main road of Damascus’s Qaboun neighborhood using tanks and armed personnel carriers.
Assad’s forces used helicopters and heavy artillery against rebel fighters and snipers took up positions on rooftops on the outskirts of Damascus, the observatory said.
“Explosions are heard throughout the capital,” it said in an emailed statement.
The observatory also said there were clashes in the Midan neighborhood including near the Majid mosque and shelling in the Qa’a area, and that residents also feared a possible military operation in Tadamun and the Yarmouk camp, which is home to Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee population.
The camp saw many residents leave, the observatory said.
On Thursday afternoon, the observatory reported that members of the Kurdish Popular Defense Committees had carried out a nonviolent takeover of the city of Kobani (Ein al-Arab) in Aleppo province.
“Members of the regime’s security forces retreated out of all their stations and posts in the city after they were warned by the committees. This makes Kobani the first city to be freed from the regime’s grip without any violence,” the observatory said.
“The regime has gone mad,” Rima Flaihan, the spokeswoman for the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, said in a telephone interview from Jordan.
“The regime is in a horrid state of savagery, seeking revenge for the killings of the military leaders.”
At least 77 people were killed across Syria on Thursday, including 38 in Damascus and its suburbs, the Local Coordination Committees said in an e-mail.
It said at least 130 people were killed in the shelling of a funeral on Wednesday in the Sayyeda Zainab area on the outskirts of Damascus.
The Local Coordination Committees also posted a video to its Facebook page that it said showed regime forces shelling Damascus suburbs with mortars.
Also on Thursday, Syrian state television warned citizens that gunmen were planning to attack people in the capital using military uniforms as disguises.
“Armed men in Tadamun, Midan, Qa’a and Nahr Aisha are wearing military uniforms with the insignia of the Republican Guard. This confirms they are planning to commit crimes and attack people, exploiting the trust of citizens in our courageous armed forces,” Syria’s official channel said in a message flashed across the screen.
Syria’s state news agency, SANA, warned that a Qatari security company was making models of Syrian cities and using them to create fake videos “in a move that is aimed at misleading public opinion about Syria.”
Citing “special sources,” SANA said the unnamed company had manufactured models “analogous to official buildings and squares in Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia in the Zoubareh region near Doha.”
SANA also reported that fake videos of Assad were circulating on social media sites.
About 20,000 Syrians had traveled across the main border point into Lebanon over the past 24 hours, a Lebanese security source working at the border said.
The number of Syrians, many of them day-workers, who travel through the official Masnaa border crossing usually hovers around 5,000 per day, the source said.
Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu-Faour did not comment on the total number of Syrians who had crossed but said that 8,500 Syrian refugees from Damascus made the trip in the past 24 hours.
Abu-Faour told journalists that the Lebanese government would open school buildings for refugees to live in and had received offers of help from Arab countries.
On Thursday evening, Syrian state television aired footage of Assad swearing in new Defense Minister Fahad Jassim al-Freij, the first images of the president since Wednesday’s bombing.
State television did not say where or when the footage was filmed, but it will allay suspicions that Assad was killed in the attack.
Assad’s TV appearance came after opposition sources and a Western diplomat said earlier on Thursday that the president was in the coastal city of Latakia, directing a response to Wednesday’s assassination of three of his top lieutenants.
“Our information is that he is at his palace in Latakia and that he may have been there for days,” said a senior opposition figure, who declined to be named.
The palace, which Assad has used before to conduct official business, is located in hills near the city, Syria’s main port.
The diplomat, who is following events in Syria, said, “Everyone is looking now at how well Assad can maintain the command structure. The killings yesterday were a huge blow, but not fatal.”
However, a Syrian official source told Lebanon’s As-Safir daily on Thursday that statements suggesting that Assad had left Damascus were only rumors. That source claimed Assad remained in his office in the capital.
Also on Thursday, a senior aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow had not discussed the possibility of taking in Assad.
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Putin had not discussed where Assad might go if he left Syria in talks with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, nor in a telephone conversation with US President Barack Obama on Wednesday, foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said.
Asked whether Assad could come to Russia, Ushakov said, “I don’t know; at least I have not heard about this.”
Russia and China drew Western ire after both countries vetoed a Western-backed UN Security Council resolution later on Thursday that threatened Syrian authorities with sanctions if they did not stop using heavy weapons against the uprising and withdraw troops from towns and cities.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague attacked the vetoes as “inexcusable and indefensible.”
“When it came for the time to turn agreement that they have supported into action to end the violence, they stood aside from that... They have turned their back on the people of Syria in their darkest hour,” he told reporters in London.
“I believe Russia and China will pay a serious price in the Middle East diplomatically and politically for taking this position.
Many observers will conclude that they have put national interest ahead of the lives and the rights of millions of Syrians,” Hague added.
The White House called the vetos “regrettable and highly unfortunate,” while international mediator Kofi Annan expressed his disappointment at the move.
“The joint special envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, is disappointed that at this critical stage the UN Security Council could not unite and take the strong and concerted action he had urged and hoped for. He believes that the voice of the council is much more powerful when its members act as one,” his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.
China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday that it condemned the bombing in Syria.
“China is deeply worried about the rising tensions in Syria. China once again called on all related parties in Syria to cease fire immediately,” the statement, which did not mention the UN veto, said.
As fighting intensified in Syria, Lt.-Col. (res.) Dr.
Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies told The Jerusalem Post that post-Assad Syria would likely split into several states, based on ethnic divisions.
The Druse, who mostly live in the south of the country near the Golan; the Alawites, who represent around 10 percent of the population and mostly live in the Ansariya mountains; and the Kurds, who live in the north, could all seek to organize along “tribal lines,” he said.
“It was very hard to unify [Syria’s ethnic groups] as a single state under a dictatorship, so under a fragile regime the country won’t be able to hold itself together,” Kedar said.
Shlomo Brom of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University said that although Wednesday’s bombing in Damascus was “undoubtedly a success” for the Syrian opposition, it would likely not result in a swift fall of the Assad regime.
Brom said that unlike Egypt – where there had been an isolated group around president Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down after 18 days of protests – in Syria the Assad regime represented a larger sector of the population, including the Alawites and other non-Sunni minorities.
“If Syria loses control of areas near the Golan, there could be a danger that groups affiliated to al-Qaida could take advantage of the situation and act against Israel,” Brom said, noting that al-Qaida had operatives among the Syrian rebels.