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Published: Monday, 7/23/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Rebels add to gains in Syrian war

Army infantry school, loyalist officers seized

BLADE NEWS SERVICES
This citizen journalist image shows a man on a bicycle surveying a street damaged by tank treads after fighting between rebels and Syrian troops in the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees in south Damascus, Syria. Rebel commanders in northern Syria vowed Sunday to liberate the country's largest city, Aleppo, from government control, and rebel forces seized a nearby army infantry school, a senior military defector in Turkey and rebel sources within Syria said. This citizen journalist image shows a man on a bicycle surveying a street damaged by tank treads after fighting between rebels and Syrian troops in the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees in south Damascus, Syria. Rebel commanders in northern Syria vowed Sunday to liberate the country's largest city, Aleppo, from government control, and rebel forces seized a nearby army infantry school, a senior military defector in Turkey and rebel sources within Syria said.
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BEIRUT — Rebel commanders in northern Syria vowed Sunday to liberate the country's largest city, Aleppo, from government control, and rebel forces seized a nearby army infantry school, a senior military defector in Turkey and rebel sources within Syria said.

"This is of big strategic and symbolic importance. The school has ammunition depots and armored formations, and it protects the northern gate to Aleppo," Brig. Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh told Reuters by phone from the Turkish border with Syria.

Rebels captured several loyalist officers, and others defected, rebel sources said.

In Damascus, Syrian troops commanded by the brother of President Bashar Assad and backed by helicopter gunships have driven rebel fighters out of the Syrian capital's Barzeh district.

Members of the army's Fourth Division under the command of Maher Assad, a feared hard-liner, executed several young men during the operation to regain control of Barzeh, a witness and activists said.

Rebels also were driven from Mezzeh, the diplomatic district of Damascus, residents and opposition activists said, and more than 1,000 government troops and allied militiamen poured into the area, backed by armored vehicles, tanks, and bulldozers.

Aleppo is Syria's commercial hub and has been a bedrock of support for Assad. The attack there was a sign of the rebels' growing confidence and capabilities days after they killed four members of Assad's inner circle in a Damascus bombing.

"Right now, Assad's inner circle has been dismantled, and Assad has lost his balance," Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem al-Ahmad of the rebel Free Syrian Army said in Turkey. "This war is now being waged in the heart of Syria in Damascus."

WHAT'S NEXT?

The battles in Damascus and Aleppo signal a new and bloody phase of Syria's civil war, with combat in heavily populated cities.

The increasing chaos is threatening to spill across borders into a larger regional conflagration.

The rebels recently seized control of several border crossings with Iraq and Turkey.

A video posted online on Sunday showed about a dozen gunmen standing at the newly captured Bab al-Salamah crossing on the Turkish border as they raised the Syrian opposition flag. It is the second crossing to Turkey captured in a week.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the death toll had risen to more than 19,000 since the uprising began in 2011.

The killing of senior regime figures, a series of high-level military defections, and the capture of several border crossings had given the rebel side momentum over the last week and put the regime on the defensive.

The battles in Damascus and Aleppo signal a new and bloody phase of Syria's civil war, with combat in heavily populated cities.

With the conflict moving from the countryside and smaller cities into the two main urban centers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll had risen to more than 19,000 since the uprising began in March, 2011.

The escalating bloodshed and increasing chaos is threatening to spill across borders into a larger regional conflagration. The rebels have taken control of several border crossings with Iraq and Turkey over the last few days.

A video posted online by activists Sunday showed about a dozen gunmen standing in front of the newly captured Bab al-Salamah crossing on the Turkish frontier as they raised the Syrian opposition flag. It is the second crossing to Turkey captured in a week. But as the rebels seized one crossing, they abandoned another. Iraqi military officials and state television reported Syrian government forces retook the Rabiya crossing in the north after rebels pulled out.

Far to the south, the rumble of fighting could be heard from the larger Bukamal crossing near the Iraqi town of al-Qaim in the desert. The rebels took control of Bukamal on Thursday.

Col. Abdul-Jabbar Mohammed Aqidi, the commander of what appeared to be a new confederation of rebel groups called the Unity Brigade, said in a video posted on Youtube: "We gave the orders for the march into Aleppo with the aim of liberating it." He called on government troops to defect and join the opposition.

He said rebels will protect members of Assad's Alawite minority sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam. "Our war is not with you but with the Assad family," he said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed said the fighting in Aleppo is concentrated in several neighborhoods.

"Aleppo is witnessing serious street battles," Mr. Saeed said, with fierce clashes on the road to the international airport as rebels tried to surround the airfield to block regime reinforcements.

Syrian state TV played down the scale of the violence, saying government troops were hunting down "terrorists" and killing large numbers of them.

The government terms the rebels "terrorists."

Assad appeared on state TV receiving Gen. Ali Ayyoub, the new army chief of staff, whose predecessor replaced the defense minister slain in the bombing. It was Assad's second appearance since the bombing.



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