Syrian spy chief dies; troops fight to control Damascus
BEIRUT A FOURTH member of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s inner circle died on Friday from wounds sustained in a bomb attack this week and troops struggled to recapture border posts and parts of Damascus from rebels targeting the heart of his power.
In the latest of a series of apparently coordinated attacks this week on high profile targets, rebels set fire to a military barracks in Damascus which opposition sources said was used as a training ground for shabbiha militiamen loyal to Assad.
In the past 24 hours, the rebels have seized two border crossings between Syria and Turkey and one with Iraq.
Syrian forces pushed fighters, who have converged on Damascus from all over Syria for a “final” battle, out of the central district of Midan and into southern neighborhoods, where residents reported heavy shelling and clashes.
The UN refugee agency said record numbers were fleeing the country and it had heard banks had run out of cash.
Assad, 46, has not spoken publicly since Wednesday’s attack on a meeting of his high command and only appeared on Thursday to appoint a new defense minister to replace one of the men assassinated in the boldest strike of the 16-month-old revolt. The next few days will be critical in determining whether Assad’s government can recover from the devastating blow of the bombing, which destroyed his aura of invulnerability.
Syrian state television said a funeral ceremony for the defense minister, his deputy - Assad’s brother-in-law - and a senior general was held on Friday in Damascus, without mentioning whether Assad attended.
It also said Syria’s intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar had died of wounds from the attack on the closeknit crisis unit charged with suppressing the uprising threatening four decades of Assad’s Alawite family rule.
The rebels, who struggled for months against government assaults on their strongholds elsewhere in Syria, appeared to favor small, high impact attacks, with residents reporting blasts near the landmark Assad Library in the heart of the city.
A witness said the shabbiha barracks was torched after a two-day siege. “The Saiqa (thunderbolt) barracks is now on fire. About 80 shabbiha and army who have been defending it have withdrawn,” Abu Ilizz, a resident of the district adjacent to the Council of Ministers building, said by telephone.
The conflict has changed from an uprising in poor towns and villages to a civil war tearing the capital.
It has become a proxy conflict pitting Russia and Shiite Muslim Iran, which back Assad, against Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, which are arming and funding the Sunni rebels. The rebels include the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors joined by Sunni youths, as well as Al Qaeda style Jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and local prodemocracy Sunni liberals.
Clashes raged for a sixth day in the ancient city and at least three people were killed when Syrian army helicopters fired rockets at the southeastern neighborhood of Saida Zeinab, opposition activists said.
Rebels are calling their offensive “Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake”. The Syrian government also said that this would be the last battle.
“The regime is going through its last days,” Abdelbasset Seida, the leader of the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, said in Rome, predicting a dramatic escalation in violence in the 16-month-old revolt.
State television said Syrian forces had cleared the central district of Midan of “mercenaries and terrorists” and aired footage of dead men in t-shirts, some covered in blood, others burned.
Opposition activists and rebel sources confirmed on Friday that they had withdrawn after coming under heavy bombardment.