Friday 15 December 2017

Assad faces stern test as Turks mass on Syrian border

Richard Spencer in Damascus

Bashar al-Assad was left facing the biggest test of the 15-month uprising against his rule last night as the Turkish army began gathering on the Syrian border and rebels struck again at the heart of Damascus.

In a major escalation of tensions between the two former allies, Turkey sent anti-aircraft guns and trucks carrying multiple-rocket launchers to reinforce its southern border following Syria's "hostile" shooting down of a Turkish jet.

Meanwhile, huge twin bomb blasts struck the Syrian capital, near the Palace of Justice -- the third major attack on a city which had, until recent days, escaped the worst of the anti-regime violence.

Tomorrow, Turkey will join its western allies in a UN-sponsored conference in Geneva to discuss Mr Assad's future. Britain and other Western countries are increasingly convinced that Russia can finally be persuaded to support them in pushing for the Syrian president to step down.

Activists said that at least another 69 people, including 38 civilians, were killed yesterday, but the most dramatic incident came in Damascus, when two magnetic bombs exploded in judges' cars outside the city's main court complex. Reports said a third device was defused.

Although only three people were injured, the bombing had greater symbolic importance as a sign of the ability of rebels -- assuming they were responsible -- to hit the heart of the Assad regime. State television showed a black plume of smoke and reporters on the scene described the mangled wreckage of cars.

As well as the internal threat, the Syrian president is now facing significant pressure from Turkey, once an ally but now one of his severest critics.

Yesterday, Turkey sent missile batteries, tanks and troops to the border as a "security corridor" after Syria shot down a warplane which briefly intruded into its airspace last Friday.

Along the border yesterday, there was a high police presence and civilian vehicles were being kept away. The many Syrian activists and rebels on the Turkish side were excited at the possibility of outside intervention.

"We have been asking the Turkish to do this for a long long time," said Dr Munzer Yazji, who heads a team in Hatay supplying networks of secret field hospitals in Syria.

Shelling

"Our hospitals are being targeted by shelling, or doctors are being killed. Before the Syrian soldiers could come within metres of the border," he said.

Fighters with the rebel Free Syrian Army said they believed the Turkish troops were preparing a buffer region in northern Syria, of which an air exclusion zone would most likely be part.

"We are told that any Syrian army that comes within 5km of the Turkish border will be hit," said Ahmed, a coordinator, claiming to have inside information. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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