Last Updated: Sat Jul 28, 2012 13:18 pm (KSA) 10:18 am (GMT)

Russia warns of looming ‘tragedy’ in Syria’s Aleppo

Aleppo has turned into what could be the key battleground of the 16-month uprising, as government forces launched a major push to drive out rebel fighters on Saturday. (Reuters)
Aleppo has turned into what could be the key battleground of the 16-month uprising, as government forces launched a major push to drive out rebel fighters on Saturday. (Reuters)

Russia warned Saturday that a “tragedy” was looming in Syria’s second city of Aleppo but said it was unrealistic to expect the government would stand by when armed rebels were occupying major cities.

“We are persuading the government that they need to make some first gestures,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference alongside his Japanese counterpart.

“But when the armed opposition are occupying cities like Aleppo, where yet another tragedy is brewing as I understand,... it is not realistic to expect that they (the government) will accept this,” Lavrov added.

The Syrian army launched a fightback against rebels in Aleppo on Saturday, amid concern among Western governments about reprisals against the civilian population of the country’s second city.

“How can you hope that in such a situation, the government will simply reconcile itself and say ‘All right, I was wrong. Come on and topple me, change the regime’?” Lavrov asked rhetorically.

“It’s just not realistic -- not because we are holding onto this regime -- but it simply doesn’t work,” he said in the news conference in the southern city of Sochi which was broadcast live by state media.

Russia has repeatedly rejected accusations Moscow is backing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in the crisis, claiming it has an even-handed approach while rebuking the West for siding with the rebels.

Aleppo has turned into what could be the key battleground of the 16-month uprising, as government forces launched a major push to drive out rebel fighters on Saturday.

Troop reinforcements poured into the southwest of the commercial hub of some 2.5 million people, where the rebels concentrated their forces after seizing much of the city on July 20.

“The fiercest clashes of the uprising are taking place in several neighborhoods of the city,” the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.

Before this month, Aleppo had seen sporadic protests but had been largely spared the bloodshed that has engulfed other cities since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule broke out in March last year.

The battle for the city of 2.5 million people is seen as a crucial test for a government that has committed major military resources to retaining control of its two main power centers, Aleppo and Damascus, in the face of a growing insurgency.

While neither side has managed to gain the upper hand, the outcome of the uprising is being watched anxiously in the surrounding region and beyond, amid fears that sectarian unrest could spread to volatile neighboring countries.

Aleppo city suffered the wrath of the Assad family’s regime after an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood between 1979 and 1982 when many of its businessmen backed the rebellion.

“Cannot remain a spectator”

Turkey, once a friend but now a fierce critic of the Syrian government, joined growing diplomatic pressure on Assad, calling for international steps to deal with the military build-up.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said late on Friday that international institutions needed to work together to address the military assault on Aleppo and Assad’s threat to use chemical weapons against external enemies.

“There is a build-up in Aleppo, and the recent statements with respect to the use of weapons of mass destruction are actions that we cannot remain an observer or spectator to,” he said at a joint news conference in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

“Steps need to be taken jointly within the United Nations Security Council, the Organisation of Islamic Countries, the Arab League, and we must work together to try to overcome the situation,” he said.

Earlier, Erdogan had cheered on the rebels.

“In Aleppo itself the regime is preparing for an attack with its tanks and helicopters ... My hope is that they’ll get the necessary answer from the real sons of Syria,” Erdogan said in remarks broadcast on Turkish TV channels.

Cameron said Britain and Turkey were concerned that Assad’s government was about to carry out some “some truly appalling acts around and in the city of Aleppo.”

U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay urged both Syrian government forces and rebels on Friday to spare civilians in Aleppo, voicing deep concern at the “likelihood of an imminent major confrontation” in the city reminiscent of other deadly assaults.

Chemical weapons

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was deeply concerned about reports that Syria could use chemical weapons and demanded that the government should state it would not use them “under any circumstances”.

But the White House said such a promise from the Syrian president was “certainly not enough” given Assad had paid only lip service to a U.N.-backed peace plan.

“Assad’s word is not worth very much,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “Any use of those weapons, any failure to safeguard those stockpiles would be a very serious transgression that would result in those responsible being held accountable.”

In stating this week that it would not use chemical weapons against its own people, but might do so against external threats, Syria caused major international concern about its stockpiles of non-conventional weapons.

The increase in fighting in Aleppo follows a bomb attack on July 18 that killed Assad’s defense minister and three other top officials in Damascus, a development that led some analysts to speculate that the government’s grip was slipping.

Since then, Assad’s forces have mounted a strong counter-attack against rebels in Damascus as well as concentrating forces for an expected assault on Aleppo.

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