Photograph by Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images.
UPDATE: Syria's Foreign Ministry warned Monday that the nation's military has biological and chemical weapons on hand to use in the event of a foreign attack.
Ministry spokesperson Jihad Makdissi said, however, that those weapons wouldn't be used against Syrian citizens. "Any stocks of [weapons of mass destruction] or any unconventional weapon that the Syrian Arab Republic possesses would never be used against civilians or against the Syrian people during this crisis at any circumstance, no matter how the crisis would evolve," he said (via CNN).
At least two Syrian opposition leaders, meanwhile, are directly asking the United States to provide heavy-duty weapons to rebel fighters, the Daily Beast reports. The U.S. has previously refused to provide weapons for the fighters, citing the possibility that they could end up in the hands of extremists or American enemies.
Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been offered a "safe passage" by the Arab League for him and his family if he steps down from power. As the Guardian reports, the league also pledged $100 million in aid to displaced Syrians on Monday.
Sunday, July 22: President Obama’s administration is getting tired of waiting for the United Nations. After much frustration due to Russia and China’s penchant to veto U.N. Security Council resolutions, the White House has now abandoned the efforts at finding a diplomatic solution, reports the New York Times. Instead, the administration is increasing aid to rebels as well as boosting cooperation with other countries eager to see President Bashar al-Assad’s regime collapse. Administration officials insist the United States won’t be supplying weapons, but would provide more communications equipment and training in order to help rebels boost recent gains against the regime.
Senior officials are also holding high-level talks with like-minded allies such as Turkey and Israel on how to handle a transition when the Syrian government collapses. Yes, when. It seems there is little doubt within the White House that the Assad government will collapse, even if officials aren’t sure exactly how that’s going to happen.
Meanwhile, in Syria, what the Associated Press describes as “a new rebel alliance” officially launched an offensive on Aleppo, the country's largest city, a sign of the growing confidence of rebels following the killings of four members of Assad’s inner circle. For their part, government forces appeared concentrated on regaining control over neighborhoods in the capital of Damascus that had been taken over by rebels recently. Reporting from Damascus, the BBC’s Jim Muir says Assad’s forces seem to be pursuing a systematic plan to get the Free Syrian Army out of the capital.
One Western diplomat compared Assad’s apparent focus on strategic centers to a doctor “abandoning the patient’s limbs to save the organs,” reports Reuters.
Fighting in large cities likely marks the beginning of a much bloodier phase in the civil war. Indeed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said July is likely to be the deadliest month of the conflict so far, notes AP.
Saturday, July 21: Syrian rebels and government forces clashed Saturday in Aleppo, the country’s largest city and commercial capital that has been a key bastion of support for President Bashar al-Assad during the uprising against his regime, reports the Associated Press. In yet another sign that Assad is losing his grip on Syria, rebels took control of a third border crossing, and Reuters hears word that fighters appear on the verge of capturing a fourth in Syria’s Kurdish northeast.
Residents fled Aleppo in droves as the fighting intensified at a time when the capital of Damascus is also seeing lots of fighting. “The uprising has finally reached Aleppo,” one activist said.
The heightened violence came a day after the U.N. Security Council voted to extend the observer mission for a “final” 30 days, notes the BBC. At that point they will leave, unless the use of heavy weapons ends and the observers can safely carry out their mission.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned Saturday that the “situation in Syria is rapidly deteriorating” and “is destroying the country” while he also harshly criticized Assad’s regime, saying it “has manifestly failed to protect civilians,” reports CNN.
Meanwhile, a senior Syrian military defector claims Assad’s troops are moving chemical weapons across the country, possibly to use them as retaliation for the killing of four members of the president’s inner circle. “The regime has started moving its chemical stockpile and redistributing it to prepare for its use,” General Mustafa Sheikh told Reuters. Western and Israeli officials had warned Syria seemed to be shifting chemical stockpiles but couldn’t say whether it was as a security precaution or to prepare for their use.
Thursday, July 19, at 11:18 a.m.: Russia and China vetoed a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Thursday that would have placed sanctions on Syria in an attempt to end the 16-month unrest in the country.
As the Washington Post notes, the vetoed resolution is indicative of the U.N.'s lack of meaningful progress in ending violence in Syria, which has escalated in recent weeks enough for the Red Cross to designate the conflict as a civil war. An estimated 14,000 people have died in the conflict.
Meanwhile, CNN notes, no one's heard from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since yesterday's attack that killed at least three members of his inner circle.
Wednesday, July 18, 10:57 a.m.: Syrian State TV is reporting a third death in the explosion that killed members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle on Wednesday.
Hassan Turkmani, a security adviser and assistant vice president to Assad, was killed along with Defense Minister Dawoud Abdallah Rajha and the president's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat in a bombing of a national security building in Damascus, according to CNN.
The Free Syrian Army is disputing earlier reports (most citing Syrian State TV) that the attack was a suicide bomb. They have claimed responsibility for the bombing but say the explosion was triggered by remote control. Islamist rebel group Liwa al-Islam have also claimed responsibility for the attack.
Meanwhile, unconfirmed rumors of defection by top Syrian officials are circling in the wake of the blast, the Guardian notes. The Syrian regime has already appointed a new defense minister, Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij, who has denied the defections.
Wednesday, July 18: At least two members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle have been killed in a reported suicide bomb attack at a national security building in Damascus, Syrian state TV reported Wednesday.
Defense Minister Dawoud Abdallah Rajha was killed in a meeting where a number of al-Assad's ministers and officials were gathered. The president's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat was also killed in the blast. Other officials have been reported as injured, some critically, including Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar and Intelligence Chief Hisham Bekhtyar, according to Al Jazeera.
Two groups have claimed responsibility for the bombing: Islamist rebel group Liwa al-Islam, and the Free Syrian Army. The bombing marked the fourth day of fighting in Syria's capital as the 16-month unrest in the country escalates into what the Red Cross is now officially calling a civil war.
Reuters reports that the bomber might have been a bodyguard assigned to protect the president's inner circle. Assad was not believed to be in the room at the time of the attack.
According to the Guardian, there have also been reports of explosions at the army's 4th Division headquarters. The 4th Division is an elite army unit commanded by al-Assad's brother.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council is supposed to vote on Wednesday on a resolution that includes the threat of sanctions against the regime. Russia has already vowed to veto that resolution, Reuters notes.