Assad forces retake towns near Damascus; Syria opposition group unveils new leader

 

McClatchy Newspapers

Troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have overrun towns southwest of Damascus that had been dominated by anti-Assad forces for most of the past year, leaving at least 100 people dead.

The precise toll of the military assault on Jdedet Artouz and Jdedet al Fadhil was hotly disputed, with the government claiming it had killed scores of “terrorists” while opposition officials in Istanbul put the number of dead at as many as 500 civilians. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the only group that attempts to count casualties from both sides of the conflict, said it believed 101 people had died; at least 24 of those were rebel fighters.

Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the observatory, said his group was still investigating what took place and was attempting to determine how those killed had died.

Representatives of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the umbrella group that the United States and other Western countries recognize as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, claimed at a news conference in Istanbul that many of the dead had been stabbed to death, including children. But the group provided no evidence of its claims.

The news conference was the first public appearance by the opposition coalition’s new leader, George Sabra, who assumed the acting presidency of the group on Monday from Moaz al Khatib, the group’s first president, whose five-month tenure at the top of the group had been fraught with controversy.

Khatib, who assumed the post Nov. 11, first raised eyebrows in the United States in December when he criticized the U.S. designation of a key rebel group, the Nusra Front, as a terrorist organization tied to al Qaida in Iraq. Then in January, he angered Assad opponents by offering to negotiate an end to the civil war with the Syrian president. Khatib agreed to attend a critical international meeting on Syria in February only after Secretary of State John Kerry personally pleaded with him to do so.

Then on March 24, Khatib announced that he was resigning, though it was not until Monday that it was clear that he’d followed through on that announcement. Just a week ago, Khatib’s office had issued the text of an address he gave to Assad opponents in Istanbul April 15 that criticized the Nusra Front for its ties to al Qaida – an apparent effort to show that he was dealing with the issue of extremists in the rebel movement.

What prompted the Monday announcement that Khatib was gone was not clear. Khatib made no statement. Sabra said Khatib had resigned “in protest” at the refusal by the United States and Europe to provide weapons to the rebels, a version that was echoed by Monzer Makhous, the opposition coalition’s envoy to France.

Makhous said Khatib had told foreign ministers gathered in Istanbul on Saturday, including Kerry, that he was stepping down because he had failed to win greater support from the West. The United States, which had previously pledged $60 million to the Syrian opposition coalition, promised another $123 million in non-lethal aid to the rebels on Sunday.

Sabra, a Christian, had been head of the Syrian National Coalition, a smaller group of exile politicians that had been the primary opposition umbrella until the United States insisted it be replaced by the opposition coalition. A longtime member of Syria’s communist party, Sabra served two months in prison last year for inciting dissent. Previously, he served eight years in prison during the regime of Assad’s father, Hafez Assad.

At Monday’s news conference, Sabra urged Syria’s minorities to join the mostly Sunni Muslim-dominated rebel movement, urging them to put aside their fears that extremists among the rebels would single them out for retribution after Assad falls. “Muslims are not our enemies,” Sabra said. “Syria is for us all. The regime alone is the enemy of everyone.”

The fighting around Damascus has been intense since rebels first launched a major offensive in the city and its suburbs in July. Reports from journalists who have managed to get Syrian government visas have reported that less and less of the capital is under government control. Nonetheless, the Syrian army, with increased help from civilian militias, seems to have taken some key points back from the rebels in the past few weeks, even as the rebels have consolidated control in the country’s north and east.

The government also has been on the offensive in the province surrounding Homs, the country’s third largest city. Last week, the government overran Buweida, a rebel stronghold for the last year, south of Homs. Activists there reported as many as 50 people killed by gunfire and shelling.

Gutman reported from Istanbul. Email: denders@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter @davidjenders

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