“It pains me to say, but we are not on the track for peace in Syria and the escalations we have witnessed in Damascus over the past few days is a testimony to that.” So said Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the Norwegian head of the United Nations monitoring mission in Syria on Thursday in Damascus, the day before the observers’ mandate is to expire.
Hopes of any sort of diplomatic resolution to the increasingly bloody conflict have all but disappeared, as Russia, Syria’s ally since the Cold War, and China have vetoed a UN Security Council resolution proposing further sanctions on Syria for failing to implement the six-point peace plan sponsored by special envoy Kofi Annan.
The UN, said the US, the UK and France, has failed the people of Syria. The UK said that Russia’s veto was “inexcusable and indefensible”; the US called it “highly regrettable.”
Thursday was the fifth day of fierce fighting in neighborhoods surrounding Damascus. Government tanks have stormed the Qaboun neighborhood, says Al Jazeera, the first time that tanks have entered a district in Syria’s capital.
Rebels forces are claiming that they have captured Bab al-Hawa in Idlib province, the main border crossing between Syria and Turkey.
An explosion on Wednesday not far from the presidential palace was a sign of President Bashar al-Assad’s weakening grip on the country. The blast took the lives of three top security officials, Asef Shawkat, former deputy chief of staff of the military and the husband of Assad’s older sister; Defense Minister Dawoud A. Rajha, the most prominent Christian in the Syrian government; and Maj. Gen. Hassan Turkmani, a previous defense minister who was the top military aide to Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa. A number of other senior officials were wounded, some critically, including interior minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar and National Security Bureau chief Hisham Ikhtiar. Commented the New York Times:
With the opposition energized and the government demoralized, analysts wondered if other military units and trusted lieutenants would be more inclined to switch sides — and if the government would retaliate with an escalation of violence.
The idea that a poorly organized, lightly armed opposition force could somehow get so close to the seat of power raised questions about the viability of a once unassailable police state. The Assad family has for decades relied on overlapping security forces and secret police to preserve its lock on power. At best, for Mr. Assad, the system failed. At worst, for Mr. Assad, defectors or turncoats helped carry out an inside operation.
Assad made his first public appearance on Thursday, in television footage of him swearing in Gen Fahd Jassim al-Furayj, chief of staff of the armed forces, as the new defense minister in what appeared to be a reception room of the presidential palace. Assad’s exact whereabouts remain uncertain.
According to an opposition figure cited in the New York Times, Assad’s wife, Asma al-Assad, their three children, his mother, Anisa al-Assad (the widow of former president Hafez al-Assad) and a number of women and children left Damascus on Wednesday afternoon via a plane from Mezze military airfield. The family may be going to a family mausoleum in Qardaha, above the port city of Latakia, for a funeral for Shawkat.
SANA, the Syrian state news agency, stated that the country’s troops would defeat “the criminal and murder gangs and chas[e] them out of their rotten hide-outs wherever they are until clearing the homeland of their evils.” SANA also warned that rebels may be disguised in the uniforms of the Republican Guards, the elite armed units that guard the president and his inner circle, and that Qatar has been making models of Syria cities to create fake videos.
Some 20,000 Syrians have fled into Lebanon over the past 24 hours; about 5,000 Syrians usually cross the border daily for commerce and other reasons. The Lebanese government has said that it is opening schools for the refugees and receiving aid from other Arab countries.
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