By: Fiona MacDonald
A bomb exploded close to Syria’s army headquarters, sending a column of black smoke over the capital Damascus, as the U.S. accused Iran of training a new militia to reinforce Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Explosives attached to a fuel truck blew up in a parking space at the army building, injuring three people, according to Syrian state television. Al Jazeera television broadcast footage showing smoke billowing into the sky over central Damascus. United Nations monitors are based close to the site though none of them was hurt, said Corinne Momal-Vanian, a UN spokeswoman in Geneva.
Today’s explosion marked the latest attack by opponents of the government in the heart of the Syrian capital and came four weeks after another blast killed key members of the president’s inner circle including his brother-in-law and defense minister. A UN-brokered cease-fire, agreed in April, has failed to halt 17 months of fighting that’s killed more than 21,000 people, according to an estimate from the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The attack came hours after U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta accused Iran of training a new militia force drawn from the minority Shiite and Alawite communities to bolster Assad’s government. The discovery of the force, known as “the Army of the People,” is a matter of deep concern, Panetta told journalists in Washington.
The Syrian armed forces are “taxed” after more than a year of fighting and “that’s why Iran is stepping in to form this militia, to take some of the pressure off of the Syrian military,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the same meeting.
After almost a year and a half of constant operations, the Syrian army has problems with resupply, maintenance and morale, Dempsey said. While the rebels probably shot down a MiG-23 that crashed on Aug. 13, that may have been caused by small-arms fire.
“It would be a mistake at this point to assume the opposition has surface-to-air missile capability,” he said.
Rebels are starting to receive large arms shipments, including supplies from western Europeand Israel, Khalid al- Aboud, secretary of Syria’s parliament, told reporters in Moscow by video link from Damascus today. Syria has previously blamed the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Qatar for supplying arms to its opponents.
UN Monitor Plea
Russia, meanwhile, urged the UN to extend the mandate for its observers in Syria, saying that their departure would further undermine stability in the country and the region, Interfax reported, citing the Foreign Ministry. The mandate is due to end on Aug. 19, according to Lieutenant General Babacar Gaye, head of the monitoring force.
Syrian government forces killed 50 people today, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group. Clashes were taking place between the Free Syrian Army and government forces behind the Iranian embassy in Damascus, while heavy shelling and clashes continued in several other areas, the LCC said by e-mail.
Former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab yesterday said the government is “collapsing emotionally and politically.” Hijab made a public appeal for Syrian troops and officials still loyal to Assad to join the opposition and abandon the “enemy of God.” It was his first public appearance since defecting from Syria earlier this month.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation opened a two-day summit yesterday in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca to consider further isolating Syria through exclusion from the 57-member group. Iran has set the scene for a diplomatic showdown by pledging to oppose the move.
The meeting is being attended by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad together with leaders from other Muslim states who are being asked to agree to the move as a response to Syria’s civil conflict. Syria was suspended from the Arab League in November.
“Syria should remain as a powerful, Islamic country,” Ahmadinejad said, according to the Iranian state television website. Instead of seeking talks and consultation, “some of our friends and brothers” have been “dispatching weapons into Syria and encouraging killings,” he said.