AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian rebels battled President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in and around the northern city of Aleppo on Sunday, seeking to reverse gains made by loyalist forces in the commercial hub over the last two months, activists said.
The fighting, by a variety of insurgent groups, happened as France urged moderate rebels to wrest territory back from radical Islamists whose role in the fight to topple Assad poses a dilemma for Western countries concerned that arms shipments could fall into the hands of people it considers terrorists.
The 11 Western and Arab countries known as the “Friends of Syria” agreed on Saturday to give urgent military support to the rebels, channeled through the Western-backed Supreme Military Council in a bid to prevent arms getting to Islamist radicals.
But radical forces showed they remained formidable on Sunday when the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham brigade detonated a car bomb at a roadblock at an entrance to Aleppo killing at least 12 loyalist soldiers, according to the opposition Aleppo News Network and other activists in the city.
Aleppo, 35 km (20 miles) south of Turkey, has been contested since July last year, when rebel brigades entered the city and captured about half of it. In recent weeks, Assad has focused his military campaign on recapturing rebel-held areas.
He has also been expanding control of the central province of Homs after capturing a strategic town on the border with Lebanon, and has used heavy bombardment and siege warfare to contain rebels dug in around the capital, according to opposition sources and diplomats monitoring the conflict.
Firas Fuleifel, with the moderate Islamist al-Farouq Brigade, said six rebel fighters were killed in fighting in Aleppo in the last day.
French President Francois Hollande, whose country has been at the forefront of Western efforts to re-organize and back the opposition, said moderate rebels must take territory held by radical Islamists whose involvement in the conflict, he said, gives Bashar al-Assad a pretext for more violence.
“The opposition needs to win back control of these areas ... they have fallen into the hands of extremists,” Hollande told a news conference in the Doha a day after the Friends of Syria met in the Qatari capital.
“If it seems that extremist groups are present and tomorrow they could be the beneficiaries of a chaotic situation, it will be Bashar al-Assad who will seize on this pretext to continue the massacre,” Hollande said.
In Damascus, the Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamist Tawhid al-Asima brigades detonated a car bomb in an area known as Mezze 86, inhabited by members of Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam that has controlled Syria since the 1960s. Two people were killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
Rebels also attacked two security compounds in Damascus, killing at least five people, sources in the capital said.
In regional repercussions of the increasingly sectarian Syrian conflict, four Lebanese soldiers were killed in clashes with followers of a Sunni Islamist cleric who is a critic of the role of Hezbollah - the Shi‘ite Lebanese group - in giving military support to Assad.
Sources in the city said the fighting broke out when a follower of Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir was arrested at an army roadblock in Sidon, 40 km (28 miles) south of Beirut.
The clashes were followed by fighting between Hezbollah members based in the mostly Sunni city and Assir’s followers in which automatic weapons and shoulder fired rockets were used, the sources said.
Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut and Yara Bayoumy in Doha; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Kevin Liffey