Fighting rages as U.S. says Syria military must remain intact when Assad goes


Government forces in Syria should be held together when President Bashar al-Assad is forced from power, the U.S. defense secretary said late Monday, warning that the mistakes of the Iraq war must not be repeated, as clashes raged between rebel fighters and government forces nationwide.

Opposition forces were meeting in Cairo on Tuesday to announce a transitional government. At least 82 people have been killed across Syria on Tuesday by security force gunfire, Syrian Network for Human Rights reported.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in an interview with CNN during a visit to Tunisia, said maintaining stability in Syria would be important under any scenario that sees Assad leave power.

“I think it’s important when Assad leaves, and he will leave, to try to preserve stability in that country,” Panetta said.

“The best way to preserve that kind of stability is to maintain as much of the military and police as you can, along with security forces, and hope that they will transition to a democratic form of government. That's the key,” Reuters reported.

The Bush administration’s decision to disband Iraqi security forces, made shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, was an important catalyst for the bloody civil war that followed.

Critics said that decision, made by senior Pentagon officials and announced by the head of the U.S. occupation authority at the time, Paul Bremer, set loose tens of thousands of armed, disaffected young men.

Asked whether security forces should remain intact in a post-Assad Syria, or whether they should be disbanded as they were in Iraq, Panetta said it was “very important that we don't make the same mistakes we made in Iraq.”

Raging clashes

Clashes rage between rebel fighters and government forces in Syria as the country’s divided opposition seeks to oust Assad in a 16-month-old revolt that shows no signs of nearing a conclusion.

Government forces have been pounding rebels with tanks and air strikes, and last week Damascus threatened to use chemical weapons if foreign countries intervened in the conflict.

The Obama administration has said it is stepping up assistance to Syrian opposition members, although the support has remained limited to non-lethal equipment.

There are concerns, however, about what might follow Assad in a strategically positioned country rife with religious and ethnic tensions.

“Particularly when it comes to things like the chemical sites, they do a pretty good job of securing those sites,” Panetta said, referring to Syrian forces.

“If they suddenly walked away from that, it would be a disaster to have those chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands, hands of Hezbollah or other extremists in that area.”

Lebanon’s powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah has publicly tied its fate to Assad.

Meanwhile, the Syrian military has stepped up its campaign to drive rebels out of Aleppo, where fighters said they were holding firm, vowing to turn the country’s largest city into the “grave of the regime.”

Opposition activists denied a government declaration that its forces had recaptured the Salaheddine district, in southwest Aleppo, straddling the most obvious route for Syrian troop reinforcements coming from the south.

Syria’s state television said that government troops had purged Aleppo’s Salaheddine district of armed groups and was pursuing others in several neighborhoods as it tries to regain control of the city.

Aleppo, with a population estimates at 3 million, is shaping up as the biggest test yet of opposition fighters capabilities against Assad’s artillery and air power.

World powers divided over Syria

International and regional efforts have failed to end the violence in Syria, which began in March 2011 and has left more than 19,000 people dead, including 5,000 government troops, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syrian state forces killed 85 people on Monday, mainly in the capital, Damascus, and Aleppo, according to the Local Coordination Committees (LCC).

Lieutenant General Babacar Gaye, head of the United Nations observer mission in Syria, said he was deeply concerned about the violence in Aleppo.

More than 12 U.N. armored vehicles were attacked and destroyed in Syria as violence spread throughout the country, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York on Monday.

“It is quite fortunate that nobody got injured by these attacks,” Ban said.

About 200,000 people have fled Aleppo and nearby areas in the past two days, according to Valerie Amos, the U.N.’s top humanitarian affairs official.

Saudi officials and citizens donated almost 406 million Saudi riyals ($108 million) by the seventh day of the Saudi National Campaign to Support the Brothers in Syria, which was ordered by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, state-run Saudi Press Agency said on Monday.

Moscow has supported Assad and has shown no sign of abandoning him, blaming the West and Arab countries for stoking the revolt by backing the opposition. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Twitter: “Situation is really critical in Aleppo. It is clear that biased media by all means try to do work for the opposition when the latter fails.”

France said it would ask for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to try to break the diplomatic deadlock on Syria, but gave no indication that Russia and China would end their longstanding policy of blocking measures against Assad.

Amid growing concern about security on its frontier, Turkey sent at least four convoys of troops, missile batteries and armored vehicles to the border with Syria.

There has been no indication that Turkish forces will cross the border, and the troop movements may just be precautionary in the face of worsening violence in Syria.