Syrian army overruns Idlib as leading figures quit rebel council citing ‘chaos’

Video: The Syrian army intensified its assault on Idlib and Homs, intermittently shelling built-up areas and spraying houses with machinegun fire. (Reuters/AFP)

The Syrian army has seized full control of Idlib following a four-day assault and rebel troops have retreated, an activist in the northwest city told AFP on Wednesday.

“Since last night there has been no more fighting,” said Noureddin al-Abdo, reached by telephone from Beirut.

“The (rebel) Free Syrian Army has withdrawn and regime forces have stormed the entire city and are carrying out house-to-house searches.”

Death toll mounts

More than 100 people have been killed by the gunfire of Syrian security forces on Tuesday, mostly in Idlib and Homs, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists.

The Syrian army intensified its assault on the province of Idlib near the Turkish border, intermittently shelling built-up areas and spraying houses with machinegun fire in a bid to dislodge anti-government fighters.

The government troops executed a number of injured civilians and their companions, who were on their way to a hospital outside Idlib, activists at the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Al Arabiya.

The rebels said they had hit back, killing some 22 soldiers in two separate ambushes.

Clashes also were reported in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor and security forces shelled Homs, Syria’s third largest city, as the year-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian rule increasingly came to resemble a civil war.

Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities deny access to rights groups and journalists.

Video footage showed the bodies of several unidentified men strewn on the floor of the mosque.

The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have died in the uprising and its refugee agency said on Tuesday that some 230,000 Syrians had fled their homes during the past 12 months, of whom around 30,000 have sought safety abroad, according to Reuters.

It’s ridiculous

 Parliamentary elections for a rubber-stamp parliament in the middle of the kind of violence that we're seeing across the country? It’s ridiculous 
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland

In an apparent bid to deter the exodus, Syrian forces have laid landmines near its borders with Lebanon and Turkey along routes used by refugees to escape the mayhem, advocacy group Human Rights Watch said.

The Syrian parliament said Assad had ordered a legislative election for May 7. It will be held under a new constitution, approved by a referendum last month which the opposition and their Western and Arab backers dismissed as a sham.

Russia and China have welcomed Assad’s reform pledges, including the promised election, and have blocked moves in the United Nations to censure the Syrian leader.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that Syrian government forces would not stop fighting or withdraw from their positions unless rebel forces instantly mirrored their move.

The U.S. State Department was dismissive of Assad’s election plan: “Parliamentary elections for a rubber-stamp parliament in the middle of the kind of violence that we're seeing across the country? It’s ridiculous,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Following meetings with Assad at the weekend in Damascus, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan held talks in Ankara with the Syrian National Council (SNC) -- a fractious assortment of Assad opponents whose leadership lives abroad.

Abdul Baset Seda, a member of the SNC’s executive council who attended the meeting, said Annan had been reluctant to detail what he had proposed to Assad.

Assad responded on Tuesday to proposals made by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to halt the deadly assault on protest cities, a spokesman for Annan said.

“They did respond. Their responses are being considered,” Ahmed Fawzi, spokesman for the envoy, told AFP.

“He (Annan) spoke with us about the humanitarian situation in Syria and how to deliver emergency aid into Syria to help the people and also spoke about the idea of sending international monitors,” Seda told Reuters by phone from Turkey.

The United Nations said on Tuesday that it would soon deploy human rights monitors in countries bordering Syria to collect eyewitness testimony on atrocities committed in the country.

Deep divisions in SNC

The Syrian National Council is deeply divided, as the resignation of three prominent members from the council showed. (Al Arabiya)

The SNC itself is deeply divided, as the resignation of three prominent members from the council on Tuesday showed.

Haitham al-Maleh, a former judge and long-standing dissident against four decades of Assad family rule, was joined by opposition leader Kamal al-Labwani and human rights lawyer Catherine al-Talli in announcing their resignation.

Their departure comes at a time when the West and Arab powers are raising the pressure on the opposition to unite and show it can lead the uprising against Assad.

A SNC member who requested anonymity said 80 members of the 270-strong group also planned to defect and may form a new opposition movement to focus on arming the rebels fighting government forces in Syria.

Some activists have raised questions about the fate of money pledged by some Arab and Western powers to the SNC.

“People are angry about the executive board. We don’t know what it is doing and it’s not clear how they are spending the money being given to them or how much they have received,” said Salam Shawaf, an independent Syrian activist based in Cairo.

Maleh told Reuters he was frustrated by a lack of transparency and organization in the SNC, a group led mostly by opposition figures who had fled abroad and have been negotiating with foreign powers to support the revolt.

“I have resigned from the SNC because there is a lot of chaos in the group and not a lot of clarity over what they can accomplish right now. We have not gotten very far in working to arm the rebels,” Maleh, an Islamist leaning liberal, said.

Maleh, who was a member of the SNC’s executive board, echoed some activists’ complaints that the group has been too slow to push for arming the rebels.

 We have exhausted all means to reform. All the ways to change have been blocked in our face... We are calling for a group resignation from the Syrian Patriotic Group 
Syrian opposition leader Kamal al-Labwani

His resignation may be part of a struggle over leadership roles in the opposition, with some dissidents regarding the Muslim Brotherhood as having too much influence over the SNC.

Labwani, a liberal who formed a group within the SNC called the Syrian Patriotic Group, said the SNC “is incapable of representing the aspirations of the Syrian people at a time the repressive regime is committing more criminality.”

“We have exhausted all means to reform. All the ways to change (the SNC) have been blocked in our face... We are calling for a group resignation from the Syrian Patriotic Group,” he said, declining to give a number of potential defections.

Talli, who was also on the SNC executive board, said she decided to resign so as not to be held responsible for the shortcomings of the SNC and its political mistakes.

Labwani, a physician released after six years in jail last December, implied a power struggle was underway within the SNC, although he declined to give details.

“We ... hope to arrange a conference to find a way to create a true and democratic umbrella for the opposition instead of monopolization of power,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the world’s largest Islamic body, said it had received permission by Damascus to send humanitarian aid to Syria, and will send a team there soon to assess the population needs.

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