Tuesday September 02, 2014




Syrian rebels seize eastern oil field and town, chipping away at government control


Syrian fighters offer their noon prayer after crossing into Turkey to visit an injured comrade near the town of Yayladagi, at the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Syrian rebels fought pitched battles Wednesday against regime forces at a military base that protects a major airport in the country's north in fighting that has left more than 40 government troops dead, opposition activists said. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT - Syrian rebels captured most of an eastern oil field and stormed a military base in the south, anti-regime activists said Thursday, further chipping away at President Bashar Assad's hold on the country's hinterlands.

Although Assad's regime does not appear on the brink of collapse, rebels seeking his ouster have scored a string of strategic victories over the past week, also seizing a large dam and the defences around a major airport. These and other blows have shrunk the portion of the country that Assad effectively governs and could deprive his regime of resources necessary for its survival.

On Thursday, rebels took control of the town of Shadadah along the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, and had seized most of the nearby Jbeysa oil field, one of country's largest, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The conquests came after three days of battles.

Videos posted online in the last three days showed dozens of bearded rebels looting a large red building and making off with boots and green munitions boxes. The bodies of few dead government soldiers lay in the dirt nearby.

"These are Assad's dogs," one fighter said.

Also Thursday, rebels stormed a small military base near the town of al-Sahwa in the southern province of Daraa, near Jordan. The Observatory said at least four fighters were killed in clashes at the base, which rebels had surrounded and shelled for days before launching their raids.

Videos posted online showed rebels chanting in victory as what they said were destroyed tanks burned and sent up columns of smoke in the distance.

All videos appeared to be genuine and were consistent with other Associated Press reporting.

Rebels clashed again with government soldiers over control of the main airport in the northern city of Aleppo and on the east and south sides of the capital, Damascus, activists said.

On Wednesday, rebels stormed an army base near the Aleppo airport and the adjacent Nerab military airport. The fighting has prevented traffic to the airports for weeks.

And earlier this week, rebels captured the nation's largest dam, a main source of electricity and irrigation for nearby provinces.

Syria's civil war has posed a dilemma for the international community. While the U.S. and many Arab and European countries have called on Assad to step down, Russia and China have protected his regime from sanction by the U.N. Security Council. Iran also continues to back Assad.

International efforts to push for a negotiated solution have gone nowhere, mostly because both sides still want a military victory.

As the situation inside Syria has worsened, many rebel groups have embraced radical Islamic ideologies and Sunni Muslim foreign fighters have entered the battle, seeing it as a holy war, or jihad, against a regime dominated by Alawites an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Fighters from the most radical Syrian rebel group, Jabhat al-Nusra, have been at the forefront of most recent rebel victories.

The U.S. has designated Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist group, saying it is linked to al-Qaida in Iraq.

On Thursday, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague called Syria "the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today."

He said the phenomenon will get worse if the violence continues, adding that foreign jihadists could endanger other countries if they return home radicalized from Syria.

"A negotiated agreement leading to a new government formed of the opposition and elements of the regime, on the basis of mutual consent, is the best way to chart a way out of Syria's divisions," he said. "We want Russia and China to join us in achieving this transition, backed by the United Nations Security Council."

Also Thursday, a leading Sunni Muslim politician in neighbouring Lebanon, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, said Assad's eventual fall would change the region.

"Bashar Assad's regime will inevitably fall, and its fall will resound in Syria, the Arab world and the world," he said, speaking by video link to a Beirut crowd on the eighth anniversary of the assassination of his father, then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He called on the Lebanese not to allow strife in Syria to cause trouble in Lebanon.

The United Nations says nearly 70,000 people have been killed since Syria's crisis started in March, 2011.


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