July 10, 2013
Ahmed Kwider and Jacob Wirtschafter, Special for USA TODAY
The original story published in USA Today is here
AMMAN, Jordan – Syrian activists have struck back at Russian allegations that rebels made and used sarin gas in a chemical weapons attack outside of Aleppo in March, calling the claims “false and clearly fabricated.”
“Russia is trying to pin the crimes of the regime on the rebels,” said Hozan Ibrahim, a Syrian activist based in Berlin. “The regime has the fourth-biggest chemical arsenal in the world. How would the rebels even get such gas?”
Russian U.N. representative Vitaly Churkin pointed the finger at rebel fighters for an attack in the Aleppo suburb of Khan al-Assal, which he said killed 26 people and injured 86, while opposition groups have blamed Bashar Assad’s government.
The United States, Britain and France, which support the opposition, said they have seen no evidence to indicate that rebels have acquired or used chemical weapons.
“The recent Russian analysis on the use of chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal is a desperate attempt by Russia to deceive the world and justify Assad’s crimes,” the main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said in a statement.
“The Syrian coalition urges the U.N.’s commission of inquiry to enter the liberated areas of Syria and investigate the use of internationally prohibited chemical weapons,” it said. Meanwhile, rebels on the ground said the accusations were “stupid and naïve” as many opposition fighters struggle to find food, let alone chemical weapons.
“The (Free Syrian Army) doesn’t have enough ammunition for its light weapons and has to retreat from battles and areas it used to control because it doesn’t have enough ammunition for the (rocket-propelled grenade) launcher and suddenly it appears to have chemical weapons?” said Omar Hamzeh, the spokesman for the Revolutionary Command Council, an umbrella organization for a number of political movements, in outer Damascus.
The escalation in the blame game comes as the Syrian regime has increased its offensive against the rebels, and as Syrian opposition moves to prove to the West that it is addressing accusations of fragmentation in order to receive promised weapons aid.
Over the weekend, the Syrian National Coalition elected a new leader — Ahmad al-Jarba — in an attempt to unite rebel groups, in order to prove to Western countries they can be taken seriously, also to receive promised weapons aid. Al-Jarba is from the northeastern province of Hassakeh and is a member of the powerful Shammar tribe. He was elected by a vote of the coalition’s council in Istanbul.
The leadership change won’t change conditions on the ground soon, analysts said.
“I think it (the opposition) remains hopelessly divided, splintered both vertically and horizontally – a long way from being unified as a credible opposition,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Middle East Center at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Lebanon.
“They keep trying and they have to keep trying but no party or leadership has really emerged that can begin to tie this very disparate group.” Meanwhile, as disputes over the responsibility of chemical weapons attacks take place internationally, fierce fighting between regime troops and rebels continued in the western city of Homs – a strategic access point to Assad’s strongholds on the northwestern coast from the capital, Damascus.
“Homs is a disaster area in every sense,” said Khadir Al-Khashfa, a 27-year-old student from Dar Al-Kabir, a village 7 kilometers north of Homs. “The regime closed all entrances to the city, dug barriers on all roads and cut communications. … Of course they only allow the shabiha (militias that back the regime) to enter or leave.” Activists say the bombardment has reached up to 25 or 30 mortar shells per hour with fumes from the constant explosions further endangering residents.
“The shelling has been violent to such a degree that many among us have been injured, the field hospital situation is very difficult, and there is a shortage of all kinds of medicines,” said Muhammad Abu Bilal, a resident of the besieged central district of Bab Houd, who said he and his family take meals in the cellar with the sound of tanks, gun and mortar fire and as a constant background noise.
Residents say the army has formed a ring around the Old City and gained control of some neighborhoods. The army has used vehicles and heavy weapons to reinforce the ring, resident says, and only 800 families remain in the blockaded part of the city. Locals are doing most of the fighting against the Syrian army, not the Free Syrian Army, residents say.
“When we are joined by someone from another sect or religion we do not deny his right to defend his country as a Syrian or as a besieged son of Homs,” said Yaman Abu Fouad, 33, from Homs.
“The evidence for what I say is that there are defected recruits, one of whom, from the Ismaeli sect, is standing behind a bullet-ridden wall alongside his Syrian brothers,” he said.
Homs is virtually abandoned, as only about 6,500 people remain in the urban core out of a former population of 800,000. “Some of them are Christians who suffer with us through the blockade but the number of these families remaining is small compared to the number of people who fled the city,” said Abu Fouad.
“The majority evacuated during the past year, following the destruction of most of the city.”
Contributing: Janelle Dumalaon and Jennifer Collins in Berlin.