* U.S., Turkey to expand planning on help for rebels
* Fighting erupts in Damascus, rebels pushed back in Aleppo
* German spy chief says Syrian army crumbling
* Jordan border clash, Lebanon arrest show perils for region
By Hadeel Al Shalchi
ALEPPO, Syria, Aug 11 The United States and
Turkey indicated on Saturday they were studying a range of
measures, including a no-fly zone, as battles between Syrian
rebels and President Bashar al-Assad's forces shook Aleppo and
the heart of Damascus.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after meeting
her Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul that
Washington and Ankara should develop detailed operational
planning on ways to assist the rebels fighting to topple Assad.
"Our intelligence services, our military have very important
responsibilities and roles to play so we are going to be setting
up a working group to do exactly that," she said.
Asked about options such as imposing a no-fly zone over
rebel-held territory, Clinton said these were possibilities she
and Davutoglu had agreed "need greater in-depth analysis", while
indicating that no decisions were necessarily imminent.
"It is one thing to talk about all kinds of potential
actions, but you cannot make reasoned decisions without doing
intense analysis and operational planning," she said.
Though possible intervention appears to be a distant
prospect, her remarks were nevertheless the closest Washington
has come to suggesting direct military action in Syria.
No-fly zones imposed by NATO and Arab allies helped Libyan
rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi last year. Until recently, the
West had shunned the idea of repeating any Libya-style action.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are believed to be arming Syrian
rebels, while the United States and Britain have pledged to step
up non-lethal assistance to Assad's opponents.
Davutoglu said it was time outside powers took decisive
steps to resolve the humanitarian crisis in cities such as
Aleppo, where Assad's forces have fought rebels for three weeks.
JETS, TANKS IN ACTION
In the latest battles, tanks and troops pummelled rebels
near the shattered district of Salaheddine, a former opposition
stronghold that commands the main southern approach to Aleppo.
Tank fire crashed into the adjacent Saif al-Dawla
neighbourhood as military jets circled over an abandoned police
station held by rebels, firing missiles every few minutes.
Insurgents said they had been forced to retreat in the
latest twist in relentless, see-saw battles for Salaheddine,
part of a swathe of Aleppo seized by rebels last month.
Some rebels, outgunned and low on ammunition in Aleppo, have
pleaded for outside military help, arguing that more weapons
and a no-fly zone over areas they control near the Turkish
border would give them a secure base against Assad's forces.
"The reason we retreated from Salaheddine this week is a
lack of weapons," complained Abu Thadet, a rebel commander in
Aleppo who said his fighters would regroup and fight back. "We
can handle the bombing. It's the snipers that make it hard."
Ten of the 30 fighters in his brigade have been wounded,
mostly by snipers lurking even in areas rebels claim to control.
His men have broken holes in walls of buildings to try to create
safe passages for them to move around in Salaheddine.
In Damascus, where Assad's forces have regained control of
districts overrun by rebels last month, a resident reported an
explosion near the Central Bank, followed by gunfire.
"The explosion was huge. There has been fighting for the
past half-hour along Pakistan Street. I am very close. Can you
hear that?" she told Reuters, a bang audible over the telephone.
Syrian state TV said authorities were hunting "terrorists"
who had set off a bomb in Merjeh, an area near the central bank,
and who were "shooting at random to spark panic among citizens".
The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said
40 people were killed across Syria on Saturday.
END GAME BEGINS?
Despite their superior firepower, Assad's forces have been
stretched by months of warfare against increasingly skilled and
organised fighters who have taken them on in every city and in
many parts of the countryside at one time or another.
Germany's spy chief said the Syrian army had been depleted
by casualties, deserters and defectors.
"There are a lot of indications that the end game for the
regime has begun," said Gerhard Schindler, head of the BND
intelligence agency, in an interview with Die Welt newspaper.
"The regular army is being confronted by a variety of
flexible fighters. The recipe of their success is their
guerrilla tactics. They're breaking the army's back."
Syria's torment, however, is far from over and several signs
point to how the conflict could spill over into its neighbours.
Jordanian and Syrian forces clashed along the border
overnight when Syrian refugees tried to cross into Jordan, a
Syrian opposition activist who witnessed the fighting said.
He said armoured vehicles were involved in the clash in the
Tel Shihab-Turra area, about 80 km (50 miles) north of Jordan's
capital, Amman. No deaths were reported on the Jordanian side.
Thousands of Syrians have fled into Jordan, but tensions
heightened after Assad's newly installed prime minister, Riad
Hijab, defected and escaped across the border this week.
In Lebanon, Michel Samaha, a former information minister and
Assad ally, faces military indictment for his alleged part in
"terrorist plots" which included transporting explosives from
Syria for use in north Lebanon, a Lebanese security source said.
Lebanon, still scarred by its 1975-90 civil war, is nervous
about instability spreading from Syria and shattering its own
delicate sectarian power-sharing balance between Shi'ite and
Sunni Muslims, Christians and other minorities.
Assad's main outside allies are Shi'ite Iran and Lebanon's
Shi'ite Hezbollah movement. His ruling system is dominated by
members of his Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
His foes are mostly from Syria's Sunni majority, who are
backed by Sunni-ruled states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and
Turkey, which are also regional rivals of Iran.
Arab foreign ministers will meet on Sunday in Jeddah to
discuss the Syria crisis and who should replace Kofi Annan, the
United Nations-Arab League envoy, a League official said.
U.N. diplomats said veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar
Brahimi could be named next week as the new envoy for Syria.
Annan quit after his peacemaking efforts proved futile in
the face of divisions in the U.N. Security Council, where Russia
and China have blocked Western attempts to speed Assad's exit.