`Assad still in Damascus`; fight for Aleppo on
Jerusalem: Days after reports claimed the Syrian President has fled the capital, the Israeli military on Sunday said that Bashar al-Assad and his family are still in Damascus.
It also added that Syrian armed forces are still loyal to Bashar al-Assad in the face of an advancing rebellion.
“The (Syrian) military is still loyal to Assad, despite a very big wave of defections, and he and his family are still in Damascus,” Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai, the chief spokesman for Israel’s armed forces, said in an Israeli television interview.
There was growing speculation about the Syrian President’s whereabouts since Wednesday’s brazen terrorist attack in Damascus which killed Assad’s brother-in-law, Defence Minister Daoud Rajha and General Hassan Turkmani.
On Thursday, however, Syrian TV showed a footage of Bashar al-Assad. But it was not known where the video was recorded.
The video showed Assad attending the swearing-in of new Defence Minister General Fahd Jassem al-Freij.
According to the New York Daily News, Assad was believed to be in the coastal Syrian city of Latakia from where he was directing pro-government forces.
Also, reports had claimed that Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Asma, have fled to Russia after the rebel attack in Damascus.
Fight rages in Aleppo
A new rebel alliance said on Sunday it had launched an offensive to "liberate" Syria`s largest city, Aleppo, while government troops backed by helicopter gunships wrested back control of rebel-held neighbourhoods in the capital Damascus.
The attack on Aleppo, Syria`s commercial hub that has been a bedrock of support for President Bashar Assad, 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," Brigadier General Abdul Kareem al-Ahmad of the rebel Free Syrian Army said at a meeting in Turkey. "This war is now being waged in the heart of Syria in Damascus."
The killing of senior regime figures, a series of high-level military defections, and the capture of several border crossings have given the rebel side unmistakable momentum over the past week and put the regime on the defensive. After struggling for nearly a week to put down a rebel challenge inside the capital, regime forces appeared close to regaining control of Damascus.
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 centres, an activist group said the death toll had risen to more than 19,000 since the uprising began in March 2011. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said July is shaping up to be the deadliest month of the conflict so far, with 2,752 people killed in the first three weeks — already nearly as many as the previous month.
The escalating bloodshed and increasing chaos is threatening to spill across borders into a larger regional conflagration. It has put Syria`s neighbours, particularly Israel, on edge.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview to Fox TV that his "principle concern" is the political chaos that might ensue if Assad falls and the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah gains access to Syria`s stockpile of chemical weapons, rockets and missiles.
He said Israel hasn`t considered specifically trying to cross the border and seize the weapons.
"There are other possibilities," he said without elaborating. "We`ll have to consider our actions. ... Do I seek action? No. Do I preclude action? No."
There have been no indications that Shi’ite Hezbollah is active in Syria, where the rebels are largely Sunni.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power and major regional rival of Iran, has announced the start of a "national campaign to collect donations to support our brothers in Syria”. That suggested the oil-rich kingdom may be looking to boost its financial support for the rebels, which they are already believed to be funding.
The opposition has taken control of several border crossings with Iraq and Turkey over the past few days. A video posted online by activists on 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 Turkish crossing captured in a week.
Yet, even as the rebels seized one crossing, they abandoned another.
Iraqi military officials and state television reported that Syrian government forces retook control of the Rabiya crossing in the north after rebels pulled out.
(With Agency Inputs)