* Insurgents seek to cut army supply lines in push towards
* Fighting in Hama province could worsen sectarian strife
* Influx of foreign fighters into increasingly sectarian war
* Russia's Putin warns of endless conflict in Syria
* Rebels overrun isolated post on border with Lebanon
By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT, Dec 20 Rebels thrust into a strategic
town in Syria's central Hama province on Thursday, activists
said, pursuing a string of territorial gains to help cut army
supply lines and cement a foothold in the capital Damascus to
They have made a series of advances across the country,
seizing several military installations and more heavy weaponry,
hardening the threat to President Bashar al-Assad's power base
in Damascus 21 months into an uprising against his rule.
Rebels said a day earlier they had captured at least six
towns in Hama province. On Thursday heavy fighting erupted in
Morek, a town on the highway that runs from Damascus north to
Aleppo, Syria's largest city and another battleground.
The opposition-linked Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
said rebels were trying to take checkpoints in Morek, one of
which they had already seized, and described the town as a
critical position for the Syrian army.
"The town of Morek lies on the Damascus-Aleppo road ... it
has eight checkpoints and two security and military
headquarters. If the rebels were able to control the town they
would completely sever the supply lines between Hama and
Damascus to Idlib province," the group said in an email.
Idlib is in the rebel-dominated north bordering on Turkey.
The British-based Observatory has a network of activists
across the country. Activist reports are difficult to verify, as
the government restricts media access into Syria.
Fighting in Hama could aggravate Syria's sectarian strife as
it is home to many rural minority communities of Alawites and
Christians. Minorities, and particularly the Alawite sect to
which Assad himself belongs, have largely backed the president.
Syria's Sunni Muslim majority has been the engine of the revolt.
"Rebels are trying to take Mohardeh and al-Suqaylabiya,
which are strongholds of the regime and are strategic. The
residents are Christian and the neighbouring towns are Alawite.
The rebels worry security forces may be arming people there,"
said activist Safi al-Hamawi, speaking on Skype.
He said the opposition feared skirmishes that had previously
been largely Sunni-Alawite could spread into a broader sectarian
"I think it is still unlikely, because the residents have
tried to maintain neutrality, but if the battle became a
sectarian clash, it could be a catastrophe. Christians and
Muslims could suddenly find themselves enemies."
U.N. human rights investigators said on Thursday that
Syria's conflict was becoming more "overtly sectarian", with
more civilians seeking to arm themselves and foreign fighters -
mostly Sunnis - flocking in from 29 countries.
"They come from all over, Europe and America, and
especially the neighbouring countries," said Karen Abuzayd, one
of U.N. investigators, told a news conference in Brussels.
The deepened sectarian divisions may diminish prospects for
post-conflict reconciliation even if Assad is ousted, and the
influx of foreigners raises the risk of fighting spilling into
neighbouring countries riven by similar communal fault lines.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Assad's main ally and
arms supplier, warned that any solution to the conflict must
ensure government and rebel forces do not merely swap roles and
fight on forever. It appeared to be his first direct comment on
the possibility of a post-Assad Syria.
The West and some Arab states accuse Russia of shielding
Assad after Moscow blocked three U.N. Security Council
resolutions intended to increase pressure on Damascus to end the
violence, which has killed more than 40,000 people. Putin said
the Syrian people would ultimately decide their own fate.
FIGHTS FOR DAMASCUS CAMP
Assad's forces have been hitting back at rebel advances with
bouts of heavy shelling, particularly along the eastern ring of
suburbs outside Damascus, where rebels are dominant.
A Syrian security source said the army was planning heavy
offensives in northern and central Syria to stem rebel advances,
but there was no clear sign of such operations yet.
Rebels seized the Palestinian refugee district of Yarmouk
earlier this week, which put them within 3 km (2 miles) of
downtown Damascus. Heavy shelling and fighting forced thousands
of Palestinian and Syrian residents to flee the Yarmouk area.
But rebels said on Thursday they were negotiating to put the
camp - actually a densely packed urban district - back into the
hands of pro-opposition Palestinian fighters. There are some
500,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants living in
Syria, and they have been divided by the uprising.
Palestinian factions, some backed by the government and
others by the rebels, had begun fighting last week, a
development that allowed Syrian insurgents to take the camp.
Despite warnings of continued violence, a video released by
activists on Thursday showed dozens of people returning to
Yarmouk. Most of the people in the footage were men, suggesting
entire families may not be venturing back yet.
"There are still negotiations going on between the
Palestinians and the rebels. The rebels want control of the
checkpoints to be sure they can keep supply routes open to
central Damascus," said a rebel who asked not to be named.
"Palestinians want their fighters to run the checkpoints so
the army will stop attacking and people can go home. But we are
worried there are government collaborators among them."
The fighter said rebels were looking to ensure their
Palestinian allies could keep open access for rebels in Yarmouk,
which they have described as a gateway to central Damascus.
LEBANON BORDER POST TAKEN
Elsewhere, Syrian insurgents took over an isolated border
post on the western frontier with Lebanon earlier this week,
local residents told Reuters on Thursday.
They said around 20 rebels from the Qadissiyah Brigade
overran the post at Rankus, which is linked by road to the
remote Lebanese village of Tufail.
Video footage downloaded on the Internet on Thursday, dated
Dec. 16, showed a handful of fighters dressed in khaki fatigues
and wielding rifles as they kicked down a stone barricade around
a small, single-storey army checkpoint.
"This is the end of you, Bashar you dog," one of the
fighters said. The remains of two army trucks, which the rebels
said had been blown up, stood nearby on a single track dirt road
crossing a flat brown plain between snow-capped mountains.
The rebels already hold much of the terrain along Syria's
northern and eastern borders with Turkey and Iraq respectively.
Syrian Interior Minister Ibrahim al-Shaar arrived in Lebanon
on Wednesday for treatment of wounds sustained in a bomb attack
on his ministry in Damascus a week ago.
Lebanese medical sources said Shaar had shrapnel wounds in
his shoulder, stomach and legs but they were not critical.
The Syrian opposition has tried to peel off defectors not
only from the army but from the government as well, though only
a handful of high-ranking officials have abandoned Assad.
But the conflict has divided many Syrian families. Security
forces arrested on Thursday an opposition activist who is also
the relative of Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, the Syrian
Observatory said. The man was arrested along with five other
activists who are considered pacifists, it said.
Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim who has few powers in Assad's
Alawite-dominated power structure, said earlier this week that
neither side could win the war in Syria. He called for the
formation of a national unity government to solve a crisis that
has killed more than 40,000 Syrians.