Syrian rebels battled President Bashar Assad’s forces in and around the northern city of Aleppo late Sunday, seeking to reverse gains made by loyalist forces in the commercial hub over the last two months, activists said.
The fighting, by a variety of insurgent groups, happened as France urged moderate rebels to wrest territory back from radical Islamists whose role in the fight to topple Assad poses a dilemma for Western countries concerned that arms shipments could fall into the hands of people it considers terrorists.
The 11 Western and Arab countries known as the “Friends of Syria” agreed Saturday to give urgent military support to the rebels, channeled through the Western-backed Supreme Military Council in a bid to prevent arms getting to Islamist radicals.
But radical forces showed they remained formidable Sunday when the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham Brigade detonated a car bomb at a roadblock at an entrance to Aleppo killing at least 12 loyalist soldiers, according to the opposition Aleppo News Network and other activists in the city.
Aleppo, 35 kms south of Turkey, has been contested since July last year, when rebel brigades entered the city and captured about half of it. In recent weeks, Assad has focused his military campaign on recapturing rebel-held areas. He has also been expanding control of the central province of Homs after capturing a strategic town on the border with Lebanon, and has used heavy bombardment and siege warfare to contain rebels dug in around the capital, according to opposition sources and diplomats monitoring the conflict.Firas Fuleifel, with the moderate Islamist Al-Farouq Brigade, said six rebel fighters were killed in fighting in Aleppo in the last day.
Rebel attacks in and around Damascus killed at least 10 people Sunday.
Syrian government sources said a total of 14 people died in the three bombings that hit two police stations and a central Damascus district mainly inhabited by members of Alawite minority community.
The blasts came as the army pressed an offensive aimed at ousting rebels from footholds on the outskirts that they have used as launchpads for attacks.
A 3-year-old child was among three people killed by the car bomb in the mainly Alawite neighborhood of Mezzeh 86 , the official SANA news agency reported.
The Salafist Ahrar al-Sham movement, which calls openly for the establishment of an Islamic state after Assad’s overthrow, said it carried out the bombing.
“The ... Unification of the Capital Brigade and the Ahrar al-Sham movement ... sent a car bomb to the nesting place of the pro-regime militiamen in Mezzeh 86,” an online statement said.
Earlier on Sunday, bombs hit a police station in Rokneddine in north Damascus and a security branch in Bab Mousalla in the southwest, killing at least eight people, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Interior Ministry said 11 people died, six of them “terrorists,” in the two attacks. The ministry said investigations showed the attackers were members of Nusra Front, a rebel group that has proclaimed allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi condemned what he called “terrorist explosions targeting innocent citizens in Damascus” and said they showed the “desperation of the terrorists.”
Qatar, which hosted the gathering of foreign ministers of the “Friends of Syria,” said the meeting had taken “secret decisions about practical measures to change the situation on the ground.”
A final communique said “each country in its own way” would provide “urgently all the necessary materiel and equipment” so that the rebels could “counter brutal attacks by the regime and its allies and protect the Syrian people.”
The rebels have reported receiving new equipment from “friendly” countries – a possible allusion to Gulf Arab nations – but the United States, France and Britain have been quiet on what they have provided.
Syria’s main opposition group welcomed the decision by Arab and Western governments to boost their assistance to rebel fighters but said Sunday more such moves were needed to end the 27-month conflict.
“The Syrian National Coalition thanks the [Friends of Syria] countries for their decisions, and welcomes the assistance that they pledged,” the group said.
“More steps of this decisive nature remain necessary, in order to end the conflict quickly, to stop Syrians’ blood from being spilt, and to make sure their aspirations are fulfilled.”