Syrian vows to 'crush' rebels

In a rare public appearance, President Bashar al-Assad lays a war-anniversary wreath.
In a rare public appearance, President Bashar al-Assad lays a war-anniversary wreath. (SANA)
Posted: October 07, 2012

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Syria's military will "crush" armed rebels, President Bashar al-Assad's defense minister warned Saturday, as the regime shelled rebel positions in two cities and near the Lebanese border in a widening offensive.

Neighboring Turkey, meanwhile, set new rules of engagement Saturday after three shells from Syria hit Turkish territory. Turkey retaliated with artillery, as it has for the last four days, which Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said would be the standard response.

Davutoglu insisted that "we haven't taken a step toward war," but Turkey's threat to fire back for each errant Syrian shell was bound to keep border tensions high. Turkey is one of Assad's harshest critics and a key supporter of the Syrian opposition.

The latest Syria-Turkey crisis erupted last week, after a Syrian shell killed five civilians in a Turkish border town.

The Syrian regime has apologized and tried to defuse tensions by pulling some tanks back from the border, according to a Turkish Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.

Still, the week's daily cross-border exchanges have heightened fears of a regional conflagration.

Syrian mortar rounds are likely to hit Turkey again as regime forces try to retake rebel-controlled areas near the border. Two of the shells that fell Saturday in Turkey were fired in clashes between government troops and opposition fighters in a Syrian border village.

Syria's civil war has been stalemated for months, but Syria's defense minister, Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij, insisted Saturday that the regime was gaining the upper hand.

The government denies it is facing a homegrown rebellion, saying it was being targeted by a foreign conspiracy against the regime's support for anti-Israeli groups.

"The most dangerous parts of the conspiracy have ... passed, and the killing is on its way to decline," said Freij, who was named to the job after his predecessor was assassinated in July. He offered amnesty to rebels who repented, but said those who did not "will be crushed under the feet of our soldiers."

The Syrian president, meanwhile, made a rare public appearance Saturday to commemorate the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, also known as the October War.

Assad laid a wreath at the country's statue of the Unknown Soldier in Damascus, then passed along a line of saluting army commanders in dress uniform.

The Syrian state-run news agency SANA linked Saturday's anniversary to the current conflict, saying that in both cases, "Syria is facing an enemy armed with Western and Israeli weapons."

Along with regime's new warnings to the rebels, Syrian troops backed by warplanes and combat helicopters launched attacks Saturday on rebel-held areas near the Syrian town of Quseir, close to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Lebanese security officials said.

Opposition activists also reported intense government shelling in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest and a commercial hub, and in the central city of Homs.

The battlefield stalemate is most apparent in those two cities.

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