Saturday, 12 October 2013


  • SAM DAGHER of the Wall Street Journal.
DAMASCUS, Syria—One day after the head of the international organization tasked with destroying Syria's chemical weapons called for a cease fire to allow his team to carry out its work, government and rebel forces stepped up clashes aimed at controlling an area that is home to two of the main research and production facilities.
The Syrian military carried out more than a dozen airstrikes against rebels and their supporters in and around the town of Safira, just southeast of Aleppo. where the sites, called the Defense Factories and Scientific Research facilities, are located, according to opposition activists.They said at least 16 people were killed in the Safira airstrikes, and activist videos of what was described as the aftermath showed bloodied bodies in the burning wreckage of shops in the town's market.
Syrian soldiers patrol an area they recaptured near Aleppo.
Syrian soldiers assisted by pro-government militias also fought to try to keep rebels away from a road running past Safira and into regime-controlled sections of the city of Aleppo, some 20 miles away, according to government officials.
The road, which is the only link between government-controlled areas of central Syria and Aleppo, the country's largest city, was recaptured by the regime earlier this week after being in rebel hands for almost two months.Syrian officials said that more than 50 trucks carrying food, flour and other essential supplies arrived in pro-regime neighborhoods of Aleppo on Thursday and the officials vowed to dispatch more aid.
But the rebels, including two factions linked to al Qaeda, said they aimed to expel regime fighters from the Safira area after attacking and massacring soldiers on Wednesday in a village that had been newly recaptured by the government, according to activists and residents.
"Everything we have accomplished in Aleppo over the past year will vanish in two or three days if we lose Safira," a rebel in a nearby village said in an activist video posted on the Internet Thursday.The intensity of the fighting around Safira illustrates the challenge facing the Hague, Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in attempting to meet a Nov. 1 deadline to destroy the regime's chemical weapons production equipment as mandated by a U.N. Security Council resolution passed in September.
European Pressphoto Agency
Firefighters put out a fire at a refinery in Homs attacked by rebels.
The Syrian regime has agreed to dismantle its entire chemical weapons program, believed to be one of the largest in the world, by mid-2014 following an agreement between the U.S. and Damascus' patron Russia.
This agreement allowed Washington to call off a military strike against the regime for its suspected use of chemical weapons near Damascus in August in attacks that killed more than 1,400 people.Although the regime's cooperation so far has been noted by the U.N. and even Washington, the OPCW said the deadlines could only be met if "temporary cease-fires" were implemented to allow its team in Syria to reach the more than 20 sites around the country, including the ones in Safira.
Many experts believe the Safira facilities are the largest and most modern. Syria's chemical weapons arsenal includes about 1,000 metric tons of nerve agents like sarin and VX as well as hundreds of missiles, artillery shells and airdropped munitions capable of carrying these lethal substances, according to experts.


The U.S. and Turkey are clashing over Syria, complicating U.S. efforts and highlighting how Middle East turmoil is upending longstanding alliances. Adam Entous reports. Photo: AP.
The possibility of any truce in the more than two-year war appeared remote on Thursday. The regime was pressing ahead with its scorched earth tactics while the splintered and increasingly radicalized rebel groups seem to be determined to deny the government of President Bashar al-Assad any opportunity to regain legitimacy through the process of dismantling chemical weapons.Even in Damascus, where the OPCW team is based now, fierce fighting continues in several areas.On Thursday night, 11 people were killed in mortar attacks on Jaramana, a regime-controlled district off the airport road, according to state media.
"We do not need a cease fire, we need to cleanse the area from these rogue groups that could care less about the international community," said Ali Haidar, minister of state for national reconciliation affairs and one of the few accessible Syrian government officials, referring to operations in the Safira area.
He said the military reinforcements that were sent to the area last week which included dozens of tanks, armored vehicles and army trucks had more to do with regaining access to Aleppo than paving the way for inspectors to visit Safira.
Reiterating what Mr. Assad has said in the nearly one dozen media interviews since late August, Mr. Haidar said the regime was fully committed to dismantling its chemical weapons arsenal and only rebels should be held responsible for any delays.
In an interview with China's CCTV last month Mr. Assad said the regime was in full control of its chemical weapons stockpiles but that one "principal obstacle" could be reaching some facilities in areas where the opposition has fighters."Maybe they want to derail this work," said Mr. Assad referring to the rebels.
Ayham Kamel, a London-based analyst with the Eurasia Group, says there is a high probability this could happen, given the fractured nature of the rebel organizations, but he says he believes this wouldn't stop the whole process even if deadlines aren't met."What they need is to see the regime doing everything it can to facilitate [the process]," said Mr. Kamel referring to the OPCW and international community."If they miss deadlines it will be important but it will not destroy the process."
—Mohammad Nour Alakraa in Beirut contributed to this article.

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