Rebels Attack Syrian Government Building in Aleppo

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A member of Syrian opposition forces is seen after they blew up the tunnel under the Syrian Air Intelligence Directorate's Aleppo branch in Aleppo, Syria on March 04, 2015. Anadolu/Saleh Mahmoud Leyla

Published Thursday, March 5, 2015

Insurgents attacked a Syrian government security building in the northern city of Aleppo on Wednesday, bombing it and then launching a ground assault, sources on both sides and a monitoring group said.

It came as President Bashar al-Assad insisted he continues to enjoy the support of the Syrian people despite nearly four years of war, as the US pushes the UN Security Council to threaten tough measures against the regime over its alleged use of chlorine in attacks.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 20 members of the security forces and 14 insurgents were killed in the attack on the Air Force Intelligence building in Aleppo.

Jihadist groups including the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and the Muhajireen and Ansar Army claimed responsibility for the attack, which partly destroyed the building.

The Syrian army said it had "thwarted attempts by terrorist groups to infiltrate the Air Force Intelligence building in Aleppo." In a statement, the army said it had "eliminated large numbers of terrorists."

The Syrian government refers to all armed opponents as terrorists.

Initial reports suggested the insurgents had set off the bomb in a tunnel dug under or near the building in Aleppo, which has long been a focus of fighting between the Syrian army and insurgent groups.

"For the past three months, rebel groups have been digging a tunnel under the headquarters in the western district of Jamiat al-Zahra," local activist Abu Firas al-Halabi told Anadolu news agency.

An AFP journalist in eastern Aleppo said the blast was loud enough to be heard across the city.

Rebel sources and a combatant fighting on the government side confirmed that part of the building had been destroyed in the attack on the western outskirts of Aleppo.

Rebels from several factions then launched an assault on the building, part of which had collapsed from the explosion, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of pro-opposition sources inside Syria.

"Gunmen blew up a tunnel that they dug (into the regime-controlled sector) and then attacked the area surrounding the air force intelligence headquarters," a military source told AFP.

Halabi added that the heavy clashes that broke out after the explosion “caused a large partial collapse” of the building.

"The goal was to storm the building and to control it, but they failed," said Rami Abdel-Rahman, who runs the Observatory.

Air Force Intelligence is widely viewed as one of the most powerful arms of the Syrian security establishment.

In a statement circulated by Nusra Front supporters on Twitter, the group said "the Mujahideen destroyed Air Force intelligence" and were fighting in the surrounding areas.

Abdel-Rahman described it as a blow to the Syrian security establishment. "It's very important, it should have been better protected," he said.

Aleppo, around 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the border with Turkey, is divided between the Syrian army and insurgent groups fighting to topple Assad.

The Syrian army backed by allied fighters launched a major offensive aiming to encircle the insurgent-held part of Aleppo late last month, but the offensive was repulsed.

The attack on Wednesday was the worst reported violence in Aleppo since the rebels on Sunday rejected a UN plan to freeze fighting in the northern city.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is currently trying to broker a ceasefire between insurgent and the Syrian army in Aleppo. His team headed there on Tuesday.

He held talks in Damascus on Saturday to try to finalize a deal, with a delegation member saying he hoped to set in motion as soon as possible a plan to halt fighting in Aleppo for six weeks.

But rebel representatives refused to consider the proposal unless it forms the basis for a "comprehensive solution" to the conflict through the departure of Assad. De Mistura has angered the opposition by describing Assad as "part of the solution" to the Syrian conflict.

Some Western powers have also cast doubt on the plan, with the French ambassador to the United Nations, Francois Delattre, saying Tuesday that "France remains skeptical about the regime's willingness" to follow through on it.

Assad says he remains popular

On Wednesday, Assad told Portuguese broadcaster RTP that the image of him presented in the West was deeply skewed.

"The people are against him, the regional countries are against him and the West is against him, and (still) he succeeded," Assad said, speaking in English.

"You're either lying to us or you're talking about Superman because if you don't have Superman, (if) he's a regular president, it means he could withstand four years only because he has the public support."

The conflict in Syria began in March 2011 with anti-government protests which were brutally repressed. It has since spiraled into a multi-sided war that has displaced almost half of the country's 23 million people from their homes and estimated to have killed at least 200,000 people.

"That number is exaggerated, always the West has exaggerated the numbers in Syria," Assad said.

He also denied any suggestion that Syria had collapsed into a failed state.

"We still have the institutions working, we still have the subsidies, we still pay the salaries... even in some areas under the control of the terrorists," Assad said. "Syria is not finished and we don't have a failed state."

He said he supported a "political" solution to Syria's conflict but that much of the opposition was beholden to foreign backers, including Gulf countries, and he preferred to speak to "people who represent Syrians in Syria."

US seeks UN action on Syria alleged chlorine attacks

Meanwhile, the United States is pushing the UN Security Council to threaten tough measures against the Syrian regime over its alleged use of chlorine in attacks, according to a draft resolution circulated to members on Wednesday.

The text obtained by AFP states that the Security Council "decides in the event of future non-compliance... to impose measures under Chapter VII" of the UN charter, which provides for sanctions and possibly military force.

The draft resolution submitted to the 15 council members "condemns in the strongest terms any use of any toxic chemical, such as chlorine, as a weapon in the Syrian Arab Republic."

The US move at the United Nations followed a report by the OPCW chemical watchdog in January that concluded "with a high degree of confidence" that chlorine gas had been used in attacks on three villages in Syria last year.

At least 13 people died in the attacks that were carried out from April to August, according to the report by the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

While the report did not attribute responsibility for the chlorine attacks, it cited 32 witnesses who saw or heard the sound of helicopters as bombs struck and that 29 smelled chlorine. Only the Syrian army has helicopters.

Assad's regime and the rebels have accused each other of using chemical agents, including chlorine.

After an August 2013 sarin attack outside Damascus that much of the international community blamed on Assad's government, the regime agreed to turn over its chemical arsenal.

But Syria did not have to declare its stockpile of chlorine — a toxic agent that can be considered a chemical weapon — as part of a disarmament deal agreed in 2013 because it is widely used for commercial and domestic purposes.

The US draft resolution stresses that those responsible for the use of chlorine and other toxic chemicals must be held accountable.

Security Council experts were to meet Thursday to discuss the draft resolution, which could come up for a vote on Friday, diplomats said.

It remained unclear whether Russia, Assad's ally, would support the text and its serious threat of punitive measures. Even if the draft resolution were to be adopted, any concrete action against Damascus would have to be approved by the council, giving Russia an opportunity to block further steps.

On Thursday, the council will also receive a report on progress in ridding Syria of its chemical weapons production sites, in line with the 2013 agreement reached between the United States and Russia.

The US is currently leading a coalition of around 60 mainly Western and Arab states, to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has swept across parts of Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a caliphate in areas under its control.

Washington recently unveiled a project to train more than 5,000 “moderate” rebels in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to allegedly fight ISIS and topple the Syrian regime.

American Army Chief: US forces could have role in Syria’s future

The US military's top officer, General Martin Dempsey, told lawmakers on Wednesday it was possible special operations forces could eventually be sent to Syria to back up American-trained rebels.

But officials said Dempsey's comment was addressing a "hypothetical" scenario for the moment as moderate opposition forces have not yet been trained.

Asked if more American troops would have to be sent to Iraq or Syria to take on ISIS, Dempsey said if commanders requested it, he would be ready to endorse it to President Barack Obama.

Dempsey said "if the commander on the ground approaches either me or the secretary of defense and believes that the introduction of special operations forces to accompany Iraqis or the new Syrian forces," or forward air controllers, "these skilled folks who can call in close air support" are needed, "if we believe that's necessary to achieve our objectives, we will make that recommendation."

The general in the past has made similar comments referring to Iraq, where more than 2,000 US forces are deployed to train and advise Iraqi army troops and Kurdish forces.

The Obama administration has left open the possibility of sending in forward air controllers or more advisers to Iraq but not in Syria, where moderate rebels are due to be trained by US troops at sites in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

A defense official told AFP that Dempsey has not shifted his position and that "there is no consideration for sending US troops into Syria" beyond deploying rescue teams for downed pilots.

Dempsey was discussing a "hypothetical" question and addressing "flexibility and preservation of options" in a hearing about a proposed war powers law that would grant the US president authority to wage an open-ended campaign against the IS group, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Critics opposed to US involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its allies played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.

In an interview with the American magazine Foreign Affairs in late January, Assad said that the US plans to train so-called moderate rebels to fight the ISIS were "illusory," adding that they would eventually defect to the jihadists.

“Bringing 5,000 from the outside will make most of them defect and join ISIS and other groups which is what happened during the last year. So that’s why I said it’s still illusory. It is not the 5,000 that are illusory, but the idea itself.”

He added that the planned US-trained force would be "illegal" and would be treated like any other rebel group.

“Without cooperation with Syrian troops, they are illegal, and are puppets of another country, so they are going to be fought like any other illegal militia fighting against the Syrian army,” Assad asserted.

(AFP, Reuters, Anadolu, Al-Akhbar)

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