x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Syrian rebels regain control of border

Rebels have been trying to take control of border crossings to provide safe passage and havens near Turkey, which is sympathetic to the fighters trying to overthrow the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

Volunteers for the rebel Amr Ibn Al-Aass brigade load their rifles during training on the outskirts of Azzaz, in northern Syria. Rebel fighters gained control of a border crossing on the Turkish frontier after clashes with troops loyal to President Bashar Al Assad.
Volunteers for the rebel Amr Ibn Al-Aass brigade load their rifles during training on the outskirts of Azzaz, in northern Syria. Rebel fighters gained control of a border crossing on the Turkish frontier after clashes with troops loyal to President Bashar Al Assad.

ISTANBUL // Rebels fought off an attack by Syrian regime troops yesterday aimed at regaining control over a border crossing on the frontier with Turkey.

Two Turks were slightly injured as stray bullets were fired into Turkish territory.

All 13 border crossings between Turkey and Syria have been under the control of the rebels on the Syrian side for some time, a Turkish official said. "It looks like regime forces were trying to get the border post back, but the attempt was unsuccessful," he said.

Rebels have been trying to take control of border crossings to provide safe passage and havens near Turkey, which is sympathetic to the fighters trying to overthrow the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

Only Syria's border crossings with Lebanon remain under the control of the Damascus government, the Turkish official said.

Live footage from the CNN-Turk news channel from the Turkish border town of Akcakale showed armed fighters moving on a building on the Syrian side of the Tall Al Abyad border crossing as shots from automatic weapons rang out. A huge explosion later destroyed parts of the building.

Shortly afterwards, armed opposition fighters were seen on the roof of the building, apparently after driving government forces away. They fired shots into the air in celebration and took down the Syrian government flag.

The fighting had started on Tuesday and escalated yesterday morning, the Turkish official said. A woman and a child suffered minor injuries by stray bullets. Local officials put the number of injured at three. Authorities in Akcakale closed schools in the area yesterday as a precaution and warned people to stay indoors.

The fighting near Akcakale marked the second time that the conflict in Syria spilt over on to Turkish territory. In April, two fleeing Syrians were killed by shots fired over the border from Syrian government soldiers in Kilis, west of Akcakale.

The official said Ankara was watching events in Akcakale very closely, but early reports suggested that the fighting there was different from the incident in Kilis in April.

"At the last time, a group trying to flee into Turkey and Turkish officials on the Turkish side of the border were shot at," he said. By contrast, there appeared to have been "no specific targeting" of people on Turkish territory in the Akcakale incident.

The fighting flared as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, was preparing to drum up support for the creation of a no-fly zone over Syria, in talks at the UN General Assembly in New York in the coming days. Mr Erdogan also used a telephone conversation with the US president Barack Obama late Tuesday to address the Syrian issue.

Ankara, a former ally of Syria that has become one of the harshest critics of the Assad regime, says the unrest in Syria is starting to affect Turkish national security, with about 80,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey. Mr Erdogan's government has said the country can handle no more than 100,000 refugees, but Turkish calls for safe zones or a no-fly zone to protect people on Syrian soil have been met with silence internationally.

The Turkish official said yesterday Ankara would continue to press the international community to act in Syria and to create "a safe environment [inside Syria], so that civilians can stay there without fear of being killed". But the official conceded that Turkey was facing an uphill struggle. "Some countries are not that eager" for action in Syria, he said.

Representatives of an "Islamic quartet" of countries trying to bring an end to the conflict in Syria are expected to meet at the UN General Assembly, the official said. The first meeting of the group - Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Syria's ally Iran - in Cairo this week was marred by the absence of Saudi Arabia. Turkey would like to see "the Iranians to be more forthcoming" at the meeting in New York, the official said.

But a Turkish analyst said Mr Erdogan was unlikely to find many allies willing to take part in the establishment of a no-fly zone.

Veysel Ayhan, chairman of the International Peace Research Centre, a think tank in Ankara, said Turkey did not want act alone in Syria, and plans for any kind of international intervention probably would have to wait several months.

"No one is expecting anything before the US elections" in November, Mr Ayhan said.

Yesterday the Obama administration has identified 117 Iranian aircraft it says are ferrying weapons to the Assad regime. The Treasury Department says the planes operated by Iran Air, Mahan Air and Yas Air are delivering weapons and Iranian forces under the cover of "humanitarian" shipments. Yesterday Mr Al Assad told Iran's foreign minister that the war engulfing Syria is targeting not just it but the "resistance axis". The Assad regime, Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hizbollah refer to themselves as a "resistance axis" in their common opposition to Israel. "The ongoing battle is targeting the whole of the resistance axis, not just Syria," Mr Al Assad told Ali Akbar Salehi. Two bombs also exploded in a Damascus suburb, causing civilian casualties, according to Syria's state news agency Sana. The first blast went off near a secondary school in the Damascus suburb of Qudsayya, followed by a second explosion about 200 metres away.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there was shelling in several eastern districts of the city. The Observatory said 32 people were killed nationwide yesterday, including 27 civilians, after 173 died the previous day.

tseibert@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters