Syrian army fights for road needed to remove chemical weapons

BEIRUT Sat Nov 16, 2013 11:29am EST

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad hold their weapon as they stand near a tank in Tel Hasel, Aleppo province after capturing it from rebels November 15, 2013. REUTERS/George Ourfalian

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad hold their weapon as they stand near a tank in Tel Hasel, Aleppo province after capturing it from rebels November 15, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/George Ourfalian

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces went on the offensive on Saturday against rebels positioned along a major highway linking the capital with the coast, rebels said, a strategic road that is likely to be used to extract chemical weapons from the country.

The road passes through the mountainous area of Qalamoun, roughly 50 km (30 miles) north of Damascus, a region that stretches along the Lebanese border and is one of Syria's most heavily militarized districts.

Captain Islam Alloush, spokesman for the Army of Islam, the largest alliance of rebel groups in the capital, said that fighting was intense in the small highway town of Qara.

"There are a large number of our fighters stationed along the road," he said.

Diplomats say Syrian authorities have identified the road north from Damascus towards Homs and the coast as the preferred route to transport chemical agents under a U.S.-Russian accord to eliminate them from the country's protracted civil war.

Although the army and civilians use the highway, parts of it go near rebel-held areas and convoys are prone to ambushes. The authorities have asked for equipment to help secure convoys.

Observers expect the next big battle in Syria to center on the Qalamoun area, causing a huge exodus of refugees and stirring up anger in nearby Lebanon as Shi'ite Lebanese Hezbollah fighters take part in the fighting.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group that uses a network of pro- and anti-Assad sources, said the fighting in Qara and the nearby town of Nabek was "a sign that the operation in Qalamoun has started."

Observatory head Rami Abdelrahman said that Hezbollah militants were mobilizing on Saturday to fight in Qalamoun.

United Nations refugee agency spokeswoman Dana Sleiman said there were reports from the Lebanese side of the border that 600-800 refugee families had arrived from Qara at the Lebanese border village of Al-Qaa, escaping the offensive.

STILL TIME

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on Friday night adopted a step-by-step plan to get rid of 1,300 tonnes of Syria's sarin, mustard gas and other agents.

The Damascus spokeswoman for the joint OPCW-UN chemical weapons team, Sausan Ghosheh, said the mission would not disclose what route it would use to extract the chemicals but said the "the Syrian authorities have developed a security plan for the transportation of these materials."

Faced with the threat of U.S. missile strikes, Assad in September agreed to destroy his entire chemical weapons stockpile following a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of people in Damascus on August 21.

Washington said only Assad's forces could have carried out the attack, a charge the Syrian leader denied.

But the mission hit a snag on Friday when Albania rejected a U.S. request to host the destruction of the most critical chemical in Syria's arsenal.

Ghosheh said that although the deadlines are tight, Albania's decision should not immediately delay the destruction program, which started in October.

"There are still steps on the group to be taken," she said.

She said the team was now training Syrian personnel on how to package and handle the chemical agents safely.

After 2-1/2 years of war, which started when Assad's forces fired on pro-democracy protests, the fighting has settled into a broad stalemate in which more than 100 are killed every day.

More than 100,000 have died since the start of the conflict, the United Nations says, and millions more are displaced.

(Editing by Toby Chopra)

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Comments (3)
RobertFrost wrote:
The irony, of course, is that the Syrian Army is fighting groups financed and armed by allies of the United States, with the United States administration’s approval and at tacit encouragement.

This suggests that the Chemical weapons saga appears to have nothing to do with chemical weapons. For, if the United States administration wished to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, all what is required is to ask Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey to allow the chemical weapons inspectors to do their work.

The argument that the armed groups are “out of control” makes one wonders where are they getting their finance and armament to continue their fight?

The argument that the Saudi family and the Qatar Shaikhs are themselves “out of control” makes one wonders how come the US administration can threaten war on Syria and cannot, at worst, threaten the same for those who are financing and arming these groups?

And if the US administration is so worried about the flow of oil from these two tribal states, why did demand of the Syrians the elimination of chemical weapons it in the first place knowing that the armed groups are in control of one of these locations?

One recalls the adamant denials of the US administration that the armed groups possess chemical weapons, and that the Syrian regime is therefore responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus.

One is happy that the Syrian regime clearly did not value the chemical weapons to the extent that they wanted to keep them, and the proof is in diverting their military resources to fight the armed groups to remove them!

This is an episode that will be central in relating the history of the current conflict, one that demonstrates several features of a never-ending confusion in the behavior of the United States as its leaders fret to regain world leadership after it squandered the implosion of the Soviet Union and the Socialist Countries, and turned to fight itself now that it has no visible enemy to fight.

Nov 16, 2013 11:30am EST  --  Report as abuse
Tellthetruth wrote:
Prof. Michel Chossudovsky writes:Media coverage has focused on the Syrian police and armed forces, which are accused of indiscriminately shooting and killing unarmed “pro-democracy” demonstrators. While these police shootings did indeed occur, what the media failed to mention is that among the demonstrators there were armed gunmen as well as snipers who were shooting at both the security forces and the protesters.

Makes you think how biased main stream media. There is an agenda here for greed and pipelines

Nov 16, 2013 5:20pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Tellthetruth wrote:
Prof. Michel Chossudovsky reports: Media coverage has focused on the Syrian police and armed forces, which are accused of indiscriminately shooting and killing unarmed “pro-democracy” demonstrators. While these police shootings did indeed occur, what the media failed to mention is that among the demonstrators there were armed gunmen as well as snipers who were shooting at both the security forces and the protesters.

Nov 16, 2013 5:24pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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