Syrian rebels reportedly seize border crossings into Turkey, Iraq

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

Syrian rebels reportedly took over major border crossings to Turkey and Iraq on Thursday, a gain for the opposition fighters trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group based in London, said rebels took control of the Turkish border crossing of Bab Hawa after Syrian forces retreated. The group also told Reuters that fighters had taken over the Abu Kamal gate near the Iraqi town of Qaim, a major transit point between the two countries, where amateur video showed the rebel flag hoisted over a building.

The video above, shared by opposition activists, shows rebel fighters firing their guns into the air and shouting, “God is great!” near a crossing station, purported to be the Bab Hawa gate into Turkey.

Other videos showed fighters pulling pictures of Assad and his father, the late Hafez Assad, off the walls at a building and stomping on them and torching the Baathist Syrian flag.

[Updated 2:04 pm July 19: The rebels later withdrew from controlling the Turkey crossing, a Free Syrian Army official said, holding it for just a few hours to videotape their accomplishment.

“We as the Free Syrian Army can’t hold an area for long, especially strategic areas like Bab Hawa,” Lt. Col. Khaled Hamoud told The Times. “But we showed the world that we were able to take over the Bab Hawa crossing.”]

An Iraqi general told the Associated Press that rebels had also taken over another border crossing into Iraq, at a remote outpost near the Sinjar mountain range. Twenty-one Syrian border guards were killed at the Sinjar post, Brig. Gen. Qassim Dulaimi told the news agency.

“If this situation continues, we are going to close the entire border with Syria,” Iraqi Deputy Interior Minister Adnan Assadi told the Agence France-Presse news agency, describing Syrians being executed before the eyes of Iraqi soldiers.

Although rebels have already been smuggling weapons across the porous borders with Turkey and Iraq, which stretch for hundreds of miles, seizing the crossing points is a boon for the opposition fighters, allowing them to ferry in more weapons, vehicles and supplies without having to traverse difficult terrain.


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Syria's Assad assails Turkish leader Erdogan in newspaper interview

BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad took direct aim at Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday in the second part of an interview with a Turkish newspaper, signaling the latest escalation of the nasty war of words between officials of the two formerly allied nations.

The Syrian leader said Erdogan, his former “brother,” had “changed” and was determined to incite sectarian tensions and interfere in Syria, an Arab nation in a region where Arabs have historically been wary of Turkey’s ambitions.

“Erdogan went beyond being a friend and brother, and he began to meddle in our domestic affairs,” Assad told the Cumhuriyet daily. This "has unfortunately made Turkey take sides in all the bloody events taking place in Syria at this time. Turkey has given all kinds of logistical support to the terrorists who are killing our people.”

The Turkish area along the country's border with Syria has become a haven for rebels fighting Assad's rule, but Turkey has denied arming the insurgents or facilitating weapons transfers into Syria.

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Syria's Assad laments, defends downing of Turkish jet

BEIRUT -- Amid escalating cross-border tensions, Syrian President Bashar Assad has told a Turkish newspaper that he regrets “100%” Syria’s downing of a Turkish aircraft last month and said ground gunners assumed the jet was an Israeli warplane.

“In the case of a Turkish plane I am saying 100%, 'If only this had not happened,'” Assad told the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet in an interview published Tuesday. “In this kind of climate when a plane approaches like this it is naturally considered hostile.”

But Assad offered no apology and did not retreat from Syria’s account that the aircraft was hit well within domestic airspace — a version disputed by the Turks, who say the plane was shot down in international airspace moments after having inadvertently strayed into Syrian skies.

The Syrian president also vowed to avoid a direct confrontation with Syria's former ally.

 “We will not allow relations between the two countries to turn into a shooting war that will harm us both,” Assad said, according to a partial transcript in English published by the BBC.

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Blast rocks Syrian capital; Turkish troops on the move

Official Syrian state media reported a "terrorist explosion" in the parking lot outside a judicial complex in central Damascus
BEIRUT -- Turkish troops and antiaircraft batteries were headed toward the tense Turkish-Syrian border region Thursday, Turkish media said, amid reports that special U.N. envoy Kofi Annan was planning to propose a transitional "national unity" Cabinet for Syria.

The Turkish deployment appeared moderate in scale and seemed more defensive and preparatory -- and perhaps symbolic -- than offensive in nature.

Meanwhile, official Syrian state media reported a "terrorist explosion" Thursday in the parking lot outside a judicial complex in central Damascus, the capital. Television images from the scene showed smoke billowing from the blast and firefighters with hoses dousing flames that appeared to have engulfed several parked cars.

There was no immediate word on casualties or damage in Thursday's explosion. Syria has suffered a number of car-bomb attacks in recent months, mostly targeting government or security installations, that have left dozens of civilians dead. The government has blamed "terrorists," its label for anti-government forces.

Rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad have vowed to take the battle to the capital, and fierce clashes have been reported in recent days in Damascus' restive suburbs.

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Turkey, NATO assail Syria, but no retaliation for shoot-down seen

BEIRUT -- Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the nation’s NATO allies had more harsh words Tuesday for Syria about its downing of a Turkish reconnaissance jet. But, as expected, neither the Turks nor the military alliance indicated a retaliatory strike or any other kind of military action against Syria was imminent.

Erdogan, in a much-anticipated speech before parliament, labeled Turkey’s neighbor and former ally “a clear and imminent threat,” and said that any Syrian military movement toward the two nations' long border could meet a Turkish response under robust new rules of engagement. But the prime minister stopped short of vowing an attack and made it clear that Turkey was not keen to go to war about the incident.

“However valuable Turkey’s friendship is, its wrath is just as strong,” Erdogan said, according to the website of Turkey’s Zaman newspaper. “Don’t take our common sense and cautious approach as a sign of passivity.”

The occasion seemed to present the Turkish leader with an opportunity to vent his fury, warn the Syrians that another such incident would not be tolerated and mollify many Turks who viewed the attack  as something approaching an act of war. But his comments maintained a general narrative of tough words mixed with restrained actions from the Turkish side.

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Tension over downed Turkish jet shows risk of Syria spillover

NATO headquarters in Brussels
In the four days since Syrian air defenses shot down a Turkish military jet, attempts by Ankara and Damascus to contain the security fallout have given way to accusations, veiled threats and fears of a widening regional conflict.

GlobalFocusThe downing of the F-4 Phantom jet, which was condemned by European Union foreign ministers on Monday, served as a stark reminder of the risks of unintended spillover from Syria's 16-month-old clash between government forces and rebels.

Diplomatic reaction to the incident also has spotlighted the inability of the international community to do more than issue verbal censure and revisit already rejected proposals for more forceful intervention.

“I think it is still important that we continue to work on a political solution," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Luxembourg, where his EU colleagues condemned Syria's downing of the plane as "unacceptable" but made clear there was no appetite for military measures to restrain Damascus.

Recent massacres in Syria have sent thousands fleeting into Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, spurring outcries from those countries over the security and humanitarian burdens imposed by large numbers of displaced opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Syria's downing of the F-4 heightened tensions with once-allied Turkey, which called on the NATO alliance to review the incident and discuss how the 28-state North Atlantic Council should respond. But Ankara showed restraint -- this time -- in declining to call for retaliation for the assault on a member state.

"I think this was an exclamation point but not necessarily a turning point" in the Syrian conflict's risks for the region, said Charles Ries, a career U.S. diplomat now heading Rand Corp.'s Center for Middle East Public Policy. "It was an event that shows how close the forces are and how carelessness on one side or another can lead to something significant."

The Syrian air defense unit that fired on the F-4 was guarding the port of Latakia and may have been following orders to prevent any aerial reconnaissance by foreign aircraft, Ries said. He speculated that the Syrians may have been unloading weapons or other sensitive cargo.

While the downing of the Turkish plane has riled Syria's neighbors, it isn't likely to step up the pressure for NATO or other foreign forces to declare no-fly zones to ground Assad's air assets, said Ries.

"This is a good illustration of how difficult a military task it would be to impose a no-fly zone over the region. Unlike the Libyans, Syria has sophisticated antiaircraft defenses, and it would be much more dangerous and difficult a task," Ries said, contrasting the challenge of enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria with the easier task accomplished by NATO in Libya last year.

Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace also sees Syrian air defenses  as a more daunting risk for the West should it opt for more aggressive intervention. He said any attempt by the international community to hamper Assad's air operations would require more preliminary strikes against Syrian air defenses than were needed in Libya.

"I don't think the shoot-down revealed any new Syrian capabilities or tactics -- nothing that Washington didn't already know," Wehrey said. "It does show the Syrians have hair-trigger rules of engagement."

Of greater concern to Middle East analysts monitoring the Syrian crisis are the refugee outflows that are imposing humanitarian burdens on such countries as Turkey, where the displaced are said to number upward of 30,000, and putting strains on delicate ethnic and sectarian balances, most precariously in Lebanon.

"The Turks have already been drawn in by the large numbers of refugees from Syria, and by their support for some elements of the Free Syrian Army," said Mohamad Bazzi, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar of Middle East affairs.

Syria has justified its action in shooting down the F-4 with claims that it felt threatened by the air-space incursion, an apologetic posture likely to allow shaken relations with Turkey to settle down over time as long as it remains an isolated incident, Bazzi said.

"They can be trigger-happy once, but they are not going to get away with it again," Bazzi said, pointing to reports that Syrian air defenses shot at a second Turkish plane on Monday.

Analysts see a wave of defections from Syria's military in recent days as evidence that Assad is losing his grip on the armed forces. Turkey's Anadolu news agency reported 33 soldiers defected to the rebel side early Monday, including a general and two colonels.

"There are indications that the Syrian military is spread more thinly now than at the beginning," Bazzi said. "There have been reports for months now that various military units have been confined to barracks because the regime is worried about large-scale defections."

That is a development that heralds the eventual toppling of Assad, the experts said, but it also raises the risk of accelerating cross-border flows of refugees, fighters and weapons in the meantime.


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Photo: NATO headquarters in Brussels, where diplomats of the 28-state North Atlantic Council were summoned by Turkey on Tuesday to discuss Syria's downing of its F-4 military jet . Credit:  Virginia Mayo / Associated Press


Dozens of Syrian military men said to have defected


BEIRUT -- A large group of Syrian military men, including a general, two colonels and at least 30 soldiers, have crossed into Turkey, becoming the latest to have switched sides in the Syrian conflict, Turkish media reported Monday.

They join the swelling numbers of defectors, whose ranks include a Syrian air force colonel granted political asylum in neighboring Jordan on June 21 after landing his MiG-21 fighter jet at a military airfield. Syria denounced the pilot, whose family is reportedly safe in Jordan, as a traitor.

More than a dozen generals are among the defectors who have abandoned their posts since the revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad began almost 16 months ago. The desertions have been both a potent symbolic victory for the opposition and a source of experienced rebel recruits to battle government forces. Some officers have publicly urged their colleagues to join them in changing loyalties.

However, it remains unclear to what extent the continued stream of desertions has degraded Syria’s overall counterinsurgency capabilities. The opposition says the Syrian armed forces are stretched thin and suffer from failing equipment and battered morale.

But the upper echelons of the Syrian military and security establishment are said to remain loyal to Assad. The president, like much of the security elite, is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Most Army conscripts come from the Sunni Muslim majority, which is the driving force behind the rebellion. Many Alawites have come to regard their fates as intertwined with that of Assad, as the conflict takes on what many view as an increasingly sectarian character.

There have been no reported large-scale defections of entire Syrian battalions or brigades, as seen last year in the Libyan revolt against Moammar Kadafi. And Syrian troops using tanks, artillery and attack helicopters have shown a continuing ability to push back opposition fighters.


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Photo: A picture provided by Syrian activists shows the Syrian air force's Russian-made MiG-21 plane that a pilot landed at the King Hussein military base in northern Jordan on June 21, 2012. Credit: Ammon News

Syria disputes Turkey's version of jet shoot-down

BEIRUT—The regional standoff concerning Syria’s downing of a Turkish fighter jet off the Syrian coast shows no signs of abating.

On Monday, Syria disputed Turkey’s version of events, repeating that Syrian anti-aircraft batteries shot down the Turkish F4 Phantom well inside Syrian airspace over the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey's foreign minister said Sunday that the military jet had inadvertently wandered into Syrian territory but was back in international airspace when it was hit.

The incident has aggravated already-tense relations between two nations bitterly at odds about Turkey’s tacit support for the rebellion inside Syria against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The Turkish fighter, flying low and fast, according to Syria’s account, was shot down Friday with a machine gun that has a maximum range of about 1.5 miles, a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, told reporters Monday in Damascus. The gun’s full range from the Syrian coast would be within Syria’s territorial limits, according to the spokesman’s account. There had earlier been speculation that the aircraft was hit  with an anti-aircraft missile, which would have a longer range.

 “The Syrian response was an act of defense of our sovereignty,” Makdissi said.

On Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu told Turkish television that the aircraft was shot down 13 nautical miles off the coast of Syria, after it had “momentarily” strayed into Syrian airspace. Turkey said the jet was on a routine exercise and denied that it was spying on Syria or testing Syria’s air defenses.

Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has called for a special meeting of its NATO allies on Tuesday to consult about the incident. Analysts say a military response by Turkey or NATO is unlikely. But Turkish officials outraged about the incident are seeking a broad international condemnation of Syria's actions. Turkey also says it wants to bring up the issue before the United Nations Security Council.

On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton termed Syria’s action “a brazen and unacceptable act.”

The two Turkish pilots remained missing and search efforts continued, officials said. Turkey says wreckage has been located on the seabed at a depth of more than 3,000 feet.


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Photo: Turkish President Abdullah Gul, right, meets with General Mehmet Erten, Commander of the Turkish Air Force, in Istanbul  on Monday. Credit: Turkish President's press office handout art / EPA


Turkey: Syria shot down plane in 'international airspace'

Turkish plane downed
BEIRUT--Syria shot down a Turkish military jet in “international airspace” without warning after the aircraft had inadvertently wandered into Syrian skies, Turkey’s foreign minister said Sunday.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s comments to Turkey’s TRT television directly contradict Syria’s version that it downed the Turkish F-4 jet Phantom on Friday less than a mile from Syria’s coastal province of Latakia.

The foreign minister denied the aircraft was on a spy mission. He said the plane was on a routine test of Turkey’s own radar system.

“Our plane briefly violated Syrian airspace, but not during the time it was shot down,” Davutoglu said, according to the English-language Zaman newspaper website in Turkey. The foreign minister added that the plane was shot down about 15 minutes after having "momentarily" violated Syrian airspace, Turkish media reported.

The minister was seeking a meeting this week of Turkey’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to discuss possible options, the Turkish media reported.

Syrian officials made no effort to contact the doomed aircraft or Turkish authorities, the foreign minister said, although radio communications indicate that Syrian authorities were aware the plane was Turkish, Zaman reported.

 Syria has said its forces did not know the “unidentified aerial target” flying low and fast was a Turkish aircraft when it was shot down about midday Friday, apparently with a surface-to-air missile, plunging into the eastern Mediterranean about six miles from the Syrian coast. Syria has denied a “hostile act” against its neighbor.

What Turkey’s next step would be remains unclear. The foreign minister said Ankara would present its finding formally to the NATO military alliance this week.

Officials from both nations have exercised restraint and avoided belligerent rhetoric since the shoot-down occurred. Analysts have voiced fears of an armed confrontation between two regional powers that could convulse the already volatile region.

The Turkish foreign minister’s statements Sunday remained relatively restrained, though he did assail Syria’s description of the plane as a potential threat to its sovereignty.

A joint Turkish-Syrian search scoured the eastern Mediterranean on Saturday seeking the two pilots, who have now been missing more than 48 hours. Hopes for their survival were fading Sunday.

Turkish television said wreckage from the aircraft had been discovered 1,000 meters below the surface.

The incident has severely tested already-strained relations between the two neighboring nations.

Turkey has tacitly supported the more than yearlong rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Turkey has hosted a major rebel front, the Free Syrian Army, and an opposition political group, the Syrian National Council.

Each nation has already expelled the other country’s diplomats, and Turkey has imposed economic sanctions on Syria.

Syria has accused Turkey of allowing arms and rebel fighters to enter Syria from its territory. Turkey has denied providing weapons to the rebels or facilitating arms transfers to the insurgents.

More than 30,000 Syrians escaping the fighting in Syria have fled across the border to Turkey, where most are living in refugee camps. The almost 16-month rebellion in Syria has left at least 10,000 dead in what many fear could spiral into a sectarian civil war in the heart of the Middle East.


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Photo: Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, center, walks with advisors before an interview with the state-run TRT Television in Ankara. Credit: Hakan Goktepe / Turkish Foreign Ministry

Turkey investigates disappearance of warplane off Syria

BEIRUT -- Turkish authorities were investigating the disappearance of one of their nation's warplanes Friday amid reports that it may have been shot down by Syrian forces over the Mediterranean sea.

There was no immediate confirmation from Turkey that the F-4 Phantom jet had been downed, and media reports gave conflicting versions of the incident.

Turkish officials said that they had lost contact with the U.S.-made F-4 on Friday as it was flying over Hatay province, close to Syrian waters, about 90 minutes after it took off from the Erhac airbase, the BBC reported.

Various reports suggested that the plane crashed off the coast of Syria. Turkish media said both Turkish and Syrian forces were searching for the downed aircraft in the Mediterranean.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Edorgan told a news conference that he could not confirm reports that the aircraft had been shot down or that Syria had apologized for the incident.

The Beirut-based Al-Manar channel -- controlled by the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad -- reported that  Syrian air defenses had shot down one Turkish aircraft and hit another in Syrian airspace. But there was no official word  from the Syrian government.

Turkey and Syria were once close allies, but the 15-month rebellion against Assad has severely strained relations between the two neighbors, who share more than 500 miles of border. Thousands of Syrian refugees have fled into Turkey, which also has been a safe haven for rebel fighters from neighboring Syria.

Turkey has joined the United States and other nations in calling for Assad to step down.


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