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The Pentagon has decided to move its forces closer to Syria as the US weighs its options in the conflict there, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has suggested.

Chuck Hagel gave no details, but media reports say the US Navy is strengthening its presence in the eastern Mediterranean.

On Friday, President Barack Obama said fresh allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government this week was of “grave concern”.

Syria’s main ally Russia said there was evidence rebels were behind the attack.

Chuck Hagel has suggested that the Pentagon is moving its forces closer to Syria as the US weighs its options in the conflict there

Chuck Hagel has suggested that the Pentagon is moving its forces closer to Syria as the US weighs its options in the conflict there

The Syrian opposition, however, has said hundreds died in a government assault on the outskirts of Damascus on Wednesday.

Despite calls from many different countries, there is no sign yet that the Syrian authorities will allow a UN inspection team to visit to investigate the claims.

The UN’s disarmament chief, Angela Kane, is due to arrive in Damascus on Saturday to push for access to the site. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he is determined to “conduct a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation” into the events.

Unverified footage shows civilians – many of them children – dead or suffering from what appear to be horrific symptoms as a result of the attack.

Chuck Hagel said President Barack Obama had asked the Pentagon for options on Syria, amid rising pressure on the US to intervene.

“The defense department has responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies,” he said.

“That requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options – whatever options the president might choose.”

Chuck Hagel was speaking to reporters travelling with him to Malaysia.

Earlier, US defense officials said a fourth US warship – armed with cruise missiles – had been moved into the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The officials stressed that the US Navy had received no orders to prepare for military action.

Hundreds of Syrians have been killed early this morning on the outskirts of Damascus following chemical weapons attacks, Syrian opposition activists say.

Rockets with toxic agents were launched at the suburbs of the Ghouta region early on Wednesday as part of a major bombardment on rebel forces, they say.

The Syrian army says the accusations have been fabricated to cover up rebel losses.

The main opposition alliance said that more than 1,000 people were killed by the attacks.

Activist networks also reported death tolls in the hundreds, but these could not be independently confirmed.

It is also not clear how many died in the bombardment of the sites and how many deaths were due to any exposure to toxic substances.

Images showed dozens of bodies with no visible signs of injuries, including small children, laid out on the floor of a clinic.

In a statement, the army described the accusations of chemical weapons use as grave, and stressed the military’s right to fight what it described as terrorism in Syria.

It accused the opposition of fabricating the accusations to divert attention from the huge losses its forces had suffered recently.

Hundreds of Syrians have been killed early this morning on the outskirts of Damascus following chemical weapons attacks

Hundreds of Syrians have been killed early this morning on the outskirts of Damascus following chemical weapons attacks

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and French President Francois Hollande called for UN inspectors to be allowed access to the area and said Britain and France would raise the issue at the UN.

If confirmed, the attacks would mark a “shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria”, William Hague said.

The Arab League echoed the call for the inspectors to go to the site, while Saudi Arabia called for the UN Security Council to convene immediately to discuss the matter.

The attack took place as part of a heavy government bombardment of the region surrounding Damascus, where government forces have been trying to drive out rebel forces.

Casualties were reported in the areas of Irbin, Duma and Muadhamiya among others, activists said.

Footage uploaded to YouTube from the scene by activists shows many people being treated in makeshift hospitals.

The videos show victims, including many children, having convulsions. Others are apparently immobile and have difficulty breathing.

“Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils dilated, cold limbs and foam in their mouths,” a nurse at a Duma medical facility, Bayan Baker, told Reuters.

The number of casualties is much higher than in previous allegations of chemical weapons attacks.

The Sana news agency said the reports of the attack were “baseless”, quoting a “media source”.

The reports were “an attempt to divert the UN chemical weapons investigation commission away from carrying out its duties”, Sana said.

The head of the inspection mission, Ake Sellstrom, said he had seen TV footage of the latest attack but nothing more.

“It sounds like something that should be looked into,” Ake Sellstrom told the Swedish TT news agency.

Ake Sellstrom said that whether his team went to the scene would depend on whether any UN member state went to the UN Secretary General and asked them to.

The inspectors arrived on Sunday and are due to investigate three other locations, including the northern town of Khan al-Assal, where some 26 people were killed in March.

Both the rebels and government forces have accused each other of using chemical weapons during the conflict.

It has not been possible to independently verify the claims.

In July 2012, the Syrian government implicitly admitted what had long been suspected by experts in the field of chemical weapons proliferation – that Syria had stocks of chemical weapons.

Experts believe it has large undeclared stockpiles of mustard gas and sarin nerve agent.

Damascus said the weapons, stored and secured by the armed forces, would never be used “inside Syria”, but could be used against an external attack.

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Syrian rebels’ claims that they attacked President Bashar al-Assad’s convoy have been denied today by the information minister.

Reports that rebel rockets hit his motorcade were “dreams and illusions”, Omran Zoabi told Syrian state TV.

Rebels said they fired mortars at his convoy as it headed towards the Anas bin Malek mosque in the Malki area, where the president has a residence.

Pictures showed Bashar al-Assad unharmed at a prayer service at a Damascus mosque to mark the end of Ramadan.

Earlier, Islam Alloush of the militant Liwa al-Islam Brigade, told Reuters news agency that rebel rockets hit the president’s motorcade as it drove to the mosque in the Syrian capital.

Other activists reported rockets were fired into the same part of the city.

Bashar al-Assad unharmed at a prayer service at a Damascus mosque to mark the end of Ramadan

Bashar al-Assad unharmed at a prayer service at a Damascus mosque to mark the end of Ramadan

It was unclear whether the pictures of the president aired on Syrian state television were pre-recorded. For a brief moment they carried a “live” caption, which then swiftly vanished.

It is possible that the footage was pre-recorded, analysts said, as the reports that the president’s convoy was struck while travelling to the mosque had come around one hour previously.

All roads leading to al-Rawdha neighborhood of Damascus, where the presidential office is, were closed for security reasons before the incident, Syrian opposition sources told the pan-Arab Saudi-owned Dubai-based al-Arabiya television station.

Firas al-Bitar, a rebel leader, told al-Arabiya that 17 mortars had targeted the presidential convoy. The opposition had been given advance information on Bashar al-Assad’s movements, he asserted.

But another of the president’s opponents, Wahid Sagar, told Al Arabiya the president might have been in a different convoy to one which reportedly came under attack.

On Wednesday, Syrian government forces claimed to have killed more than 60 rebels in an ambush near Damascus.

Military sources quoted by the state news agency Sana said the victims were insurgents in the jihadist group, al-Nusra Front. They had been planning an attack on a military post, they said.

The news came as rights group Amnesty International released satellite images of Aleppo, one of Syria’s biggest cities, showing how clashes between government and rebel forces had devastated built-up areas.

The White House has announced today that President Barack Obama has approved for the first time a direct military aid to the Syrian opposition.

President Barack Obama made the decision after his administration concluded Syrian forces under President Bashar al-Assad were using chemical weapons, a spokesman said.

Ben Rhodes did not give details about the military aid other than to say it would be “different in scope and scale to what we have provided before”.

Russia said the US claims on Syria’s chemical weapons use were unconvincing.

Yury Ushakov, a senior aide to President Vladimir Putin, told reporters that Washington had provided Moscow with its evidence, but “what was presented…. does not look convincing to us”.

The US announcement is one that the Syrian opposition has been pushing and praying for months.

It seems clear that President Barack Obama has finally been persuaded, as Britain and France have argued, that the battlefield cannot be allowed to tilt strongly in the regime’s favor, as is currently happening.

Washington’s “clear” statement was welcomed by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who urged Syria to let the UN “investigate all reports of chemical weapons use”.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the UK agreed with Washington’s assessment and said an urgent response to the Syria crisis would be discussed at the G8 this week.

But a spokesperson for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told said that he remained against “any further militarization” of the conflict in Syria, saying the people there need peace not more weapons.

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Barack Obama, said the US intelligence community believed the “Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times over the last year”.

He said intelligence officials had a “high confidence” in their assessment, and also estimated that 100 to 150 people had died from chemical weapons attacks, “however, casualty data is likely incomplete”.

“We have consistently said the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses red lines that have existed in the international community for decades,” Ben Rhodes said.

President Barack Obama has approved for the first time a direct military aid to the Syrian opposition

President Barack Obama has approved for the first time a direct military aid to the Syrian opposition

Ben Rhodes said President Barack Obama had made the decision to increase assistance, including “military support”, to the Supreme Military Council (SMC) and Syrian Opposition Coalition.

He did not give details of the aid, but administration officials have been quoted by US media as saying it will most likely include sending small arms and ammunition.

The New York Times quoted US officials as saying that Washington could provide anti-tank weapons.

Syria’s rebels have been calling for both anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Washington is also considering a no-fly zone inside Syria, possibly near the border with Jordan, that would protect refugees and rebels who are training there.

When asked whether Barack Obama would back a no-fly zone over Syria, Ben Rhodes said one would not make a “huge difference” on the ground – and would be costly.

He said further actions would be taken “on our own timeline.”

The CIA is expected to co-ordinate delivery of the military equipment and train the rebel soldiers in how to use it.

Until now, the US has limited its help to rebel forces by providing rations and medical supplies.

Ben Rhodes said the White House hoped the increased support would bolster the effectiveness and legitimacy of both the political and military arms of Syria’s rebels, and said the US was “comfortable” working with SMC chief Gen Salim Idris.

“It’s been important to work through them while aiming to isolate some of the more extremist elements of the opposition, such as al-Nusra,” he said.

The US decision marks a significant escalation of the proxy war that has been gathering pace in Syria, our Beirut correspondent says.

The support of the West’s regional allies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, had helped the rebels in the days after the uprising became militarized.

But the tide turned after the Assad government turned to Moscow and Tehran for help. Hezbollah fighters have also been involved in the government’s counter-offensive.

Now the West is lining up to try and help the rebels, but that is likely to take many months with more bloodshed and destruction.

The White House announcement immediately shook up the ongoing debate in Washington DC over how the US might provide assistance to the rebels.

Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have been particularly strident in their calls for military aid, said the finding must change US policy in Syria. They called for further action, saying US credibility was on the line.

“A decision to provide lethal assistance, especially ammunition and heavy weapons, to opposition forces in Syria is long overdue, and we hope the president will take this urgently needed step,” they said in a joint statement.

“But providing arms alone is not sufficient. The president must rally an international coalition to take military actions to degrade Assad’s ability to use airpower and ballistic missiles and to move and resupply his forces around the battlefield by air.”

The White House announcement came on the same day the UN said the number of those killed in the Syrian conflict had risen to more than 93,000 people.

A UN report released on Thursday found at least 5,000 people have been dying in Syria every month since last July, with 30,000 killed since November.

More than 80% of those killed were men, but the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says it has also documented the deaths of more than 1,700 children under the age of 10.

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EU foreign ministers have said they will not renew an arms embargo on the Syrian opposition, due to expire on Saturday.

However, there was no immediate decision to send arms to Syrian rebels and all other sanctions remained in force.

Even so, Russia said it would “directly harm” the prospects of an international peace conference on Syria.

The EU declaration on Syria came after 12 hours of talks in Brussels. Foreign ministers were unable to reach the unanimous decision required to extend the current arms embargo, and so agreed to renew the other sanctions – including an assets freeze on President Bashar al-Assad and his aides, and restrictions on trade in oil and financial transactions – without it.

The EU decision will not make much difference on the ground in the immediate future.

Member states can now decide their own policy on sending arms to Syria, but agreed not to “proceed at this stage with the delivery” of equipment.

The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council is to review this position before August 1, in light of fresh developments to end the conflict including the ongoing US-Russia peace initiative.

Britain and France had been pressing for the ability to send weapons to what they call moderate opponents of President Assad, saying it would push Damascus towards a political solution to the two-year conflict.

EU foreign ministers have said they will not renew an arms embargo on the Syrian opposition, due to expire on Saturday

EU foreign ministers have said they will not renew an arms embargo on the Syrian opposition, due to expire on Saturday

There has been increasing pressure on the international community to act since allegations emerged of chemical weapons being used in the conflict. Syria has denied using chemical weapons.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed the outcome of the Brussels talks, saying it was “important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so”.

But other countries had opposed opening the way for weapons to be sent, saying it would only worsen the violence that has already cost at least 80,000 lives.

Austria had been a key opponent of arms being sent.

“The EU should hold the line. We are a peace movement and not a war movement,” Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the EU move “a manifestation of double standards”. Russia and the US are leading efforts to organize a peace conference on Syria next month.

The Syrian opposition has not said whether to attend the conference, and was locked in talks in Istanbul, Turkey, as an unofficial deadline to decide on its attendance passed.

A spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Louay Safi, was quoted by news agency AFP as saying that the EU move was “a positive step”, but that the coalition was “afraid it could be too little, too late”.

George Jabboure Netto, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council (SNC), another opposition group, said the dropping of the arms embargo was a “step in the right direction”.

He said the SNC was willing to negotiate an end to the conflict, but only on the condition that there was no place for President Bashar al-Assad in the new Syria.

“We think coupling the arming of [the] Free Syrian Army with diplomatic efforts is a must for any hopes for the diplomatic efforts to succeed.”

The EU embargo, first imposed in May 2011, applies to the rebels as much as the Syrian government.

But in February this year, foreign ministers agreed to enable any EU member state to provide non-lethal military equipment “for the protection of civilians” or for the opposition forces, “which the Union accepts as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people”.

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Syrian opposition National Coalition has chosen Ghassan Hitto as the prime minister to head a government for rebel-held regions.

Ghassan Hitto is a Damascus-born IT expert who spent decades in the US. He was elected at a meeting of coalition leaders in Istanbul in Turkey.

His first task will be to form a government to oversee services in areas captured from government forces.

Meanwhile, the US and France denounced a Syrian airstrike on the Lebanese border as a “violation of sovereignty”.

Reports from Lebanon say Syrian aircraft fired four rockets at the border between the two countries, near the Lebanese town of Arsal on Monday.

There were no casualties from the raid. Lebanese officials had earlier said it was not clear whether the rockets had landed inside Lebanese territory.

The US described the attack as a “significant escalation” of the conflict. France said the raid constituted “a new and serious violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty”.

In Monday’s vote in Istanbul, Ghassan Hitto won with 35 out of 48 votes, in what coalition leaders described as a “transparent, democratic” election.

But some senior coalition leaders are reported to have withdrawn from the vote in protest over Ghassan Hitto’s lack of military experience.

Last November, the 50-year-old moved from Texas to Turkey to help co-ordinate aid to rebel-held areas.

Syrian opposition National Coalition has chosen Ghassan Hitto as the prime minister to head a government for rebel-held regions

Syrian opposition National Coalition has chosen Ghassan Hitto as the prime minister to head a government for rebel-held regions

Earlier, the commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army said his group would work “under the umbrella” of any new government.“Any institutions not following this government would be considered to be acting illegitimately and would be prosecuted,” Gen Selim Idriss Idriss told AFP news agency.

Large swathes of northern Syria have been seized by rebels in recent months.

They are currently administered by a patchwork of local councils and armed groups who have been running some institutions, such as courts and prisons.

But reports say basic supplies such as electricity and water are limited.

Also on Monday, the US said it would not stand in the way of other countries arming Syrian rebels.

Last week saw the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, which initially began as a wave of peaceful protests but which is now often described as a civil war.

An estimated 70,000 people have been killed and more than one million people have fled Syria since the uprising began.

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Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has delivered a rare TV address, denouncing his opponents as “enemies of God and puppets of the West”.

Bashar al-Assad lamented the suffering of the people in the civil war, saying a “black cloud” of pain engulfed every corner.

He also set out a plan involving a national dialogue conference and a referendum on a national charter.

The UN estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed in the uprising, which began in March 2011.

The speech was Bashar al-Assad’s first public address since June 2012.

He rejected the Syrian opposition movement as puppets fabricated by the West, and said that Syria wanted to negotiate with the “master not the servants”.

Bashar al-Assad said Syria had not rejected diplomatic moves but insisted it would not negotiate with people with “terrorist” ideas.

He said: “There are those who seek to partition Syria and weaken it. But Syria is stronger… and will remain sovereign… and this is what upsets the West.”

His speech was interspersed with applause and chants from defiant supporters in the opera house in central Damascus, and at the end he was mobbed on the stage.

Bashar al-Assad accused the rebels of stealing wheat from the people, depriving children of school and cutting off electricity and medical supplies.

He called on every citizen to defend the country according to their means.

“We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word. This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war to defend the nation,” he said.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has delivered a rare TV address, denouncing his opponents as enemies of God and puppets of the West

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has delivered a rare TV address, denouncing his opponents as enemies of God and puppets of the West

Bashar al-Assad set out a series of steps he said would provide a solution to the crisis:

  • Outside powers to stop arming what he called “terrorist groups”
  • The army would then halt military operations, while reserving the right to defend state interests
  • The government would then contact what he termed “Syrian individuals and political parties” to engage in a conference of national dialogue
  • The conference would try to establish a national charter that would be put to a referendum, leading to parliamentary elections and a new government

The president’s latest words are unlikely to persuade any in the opposition that he is ready to discuss a viable transition.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) quickly dismissed Bashar al-Assad’s proposals.

Spokesman Walid Bunni told Reuters his group would accept nothing less than the departure of Bashar al-Assad and his government.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague accused President Assad of hypocrisy, saying “the empty promises of reform fool no-one”.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s office said the union would consider “if there is anything new in the speech”, but added: “We maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition.”

The foreign minister of neighboring Turkey, Ahmet Davutoglu, dismissed Bashar al-Assad’s remarks as “repetitions of what he’s said all along”.

Bashar al-Assad’s last public comments were in November, when he told Russian TV he would “live and die in Syria”.

Since then opposition forces have gained control of swathes of territory in northern Syria and have formed the SNC, a more inclusive leadership that has been recognized by the US and the EU.

But rebel efforts to gain ground in and around major cities including Damascus have been met by stiff resistance and increasingly destructive air strikes.

The UK-based activist group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported fresh violence overnight into Sunday, saying that troops had bombarded rebel positions on the outskirts of Damascus, including in Beit Saham, near the airport road.

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Syrian rebels say they have captured Hamdan airport near the border with Iraq.

The airport of Hamdan in Deir al-Zour province, near the town of Albu Kamal, had been converted by government forces for military use.

The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, an activist network, said rebels now controlled “large swathes of land in the area”.

Meanwhile, France said it would allow the Syrian opposition to appoint an ambassador to Paris.

French President Francois Hollande announced the move after talks with the head of a newly formed opposition coalition, Moaz al-Khatib.

Moaz al-Khatib said that the new ambassador’s post would be filled by Monzir Makhous, an academic.

France became the first Western nation to recognize the National Coalition earlier this week.

Also on Saturday, Syrian government forces released a Turkish cameraman who had been held since August.

Cuneyt Unal was taken captive in Aleppo in August.

Activists and observers say more than 38,000 people have been killed in the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which began last year.

France has become the first Western country to recognize Syria’s opposition coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

The move was announced by President Francois Hollande at a televised news conference in Paris.

Syrian opposition groups struck a deal in the Qatari capital Doha on Sunday to form a broad coalition to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

The US and Britain have both signaled support for the coalition.

But they stopped short of recognizing it as a government-in-exile.

Gulf Arab states have declared the coalition to be the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Opposition and human rights activists estimate that more than 36,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule began in March 2011.

More than 408,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, and more are fleeing every day, according to the United Nations.

Francois Hollande told reporters: “I announce today that France recognizes the Syrian National Coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and as the future government of a democratic Syria, allowing it to bring an end to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.”

Francois Hollande’s announcement is a clear sign that the West is now pinning its hopes on the Syrian opposition finally being able to offer a united and effective alternative to President Bashar al-Assad.

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has been calling on European nations to recognize it as the country’s transitional government, enabling it to buy weapons to assist its attempts to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

Fancrois Hollande said France would look at the question of arming the coalition, but that it would not support doing so “as long as it wasn’t clear where these weapons went”.

“With the coalition, as soon as it is a legitimate government of Syria, this question will be looked at by France, but also by all countries that recognize this government,” he said.

In Washington, state department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said the US regarded the National Coalition as “a legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.

“We now have a structure in place that can prepare for a political transition,” he told reporters.

“But… we’re looking for it to still establish the types of technical committees that will allow us to make sure our assistance gets to the right places.”

Moaz al-Khatib, a leading Damascus cleric who fled Syria, has been chosen at a meeting in Qatar to head a new coalition to oppose President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Cleric Moaz al-Khatib, former Sunni Muslim imam of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, is seen as a moderate.

Earlier, Syrian opposition groups agreed a deal to bring together their disparate factions.

The fractious opposition has been under pressure from the US and other backers in the region to clinch a deal.

Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, 52, left Damascus for Cairo in July after several periods of detention by the Syrian authorities.

He had earlier attempted to bring the conflict to an end and in an interview with Reuters news agency in July said: “I want the Syrian people to remain as one hand.”

In a speech in Doha last month Moaz al-Khatib called for a political solution to save Syria from further destruction, arguing that negotiation would not “rescue the regime” but enable its departure with the least harm possible.

More than 36,000 people have been killed in the long-running uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Many thousands more have fled the country since the unrest began last year.

Earlier on Saturday the Israeli military said it had fired warning shots into Syria, after a mortar round from Syria hit an Israeli outpost in the occupied Golan Heights.

It was the first time the two sides have exchanged fire since the 1973 Middle East war.

Moaz al-Khatib has been chosen at a meeting in Qatar to head a new coalition to oppose Bashar al-Assad's government

Moaz al-Khatib has been chosen at a meeting in Qatar to head a new coalition to oppose Bashar al-Assad’s government

Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni, a Muslim Brotherhood delegate at the Qatar talks, said the new body would be called the National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution.

The group, formed after a week of talks in Doha, will have two vice-presidents – prominent dissident Riad Seif and leading secular activist Suhair al-Atassi.

The coalition’s leadership was set to become the face and voice of the Syrian opposition in the coming phase.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), which was formerly recognized as the main opposition, had been concerned it might be sidelined by the new opposition body.

One source at the meeting told Reuters that the SNC had agreed only under pressure and that it had been given a deadline of 10:00 a.m. to sign up or risk being left out.

The new body had been proposed by Riad Seif with the backing of the US, which had signaled its frustration with the SNC.

He confirmed on Sunday that a “12-point agreement to establish a coalition” had been sealed.

Proposals for the new body include an assembly of some 55-60 members, with a leadership that will seek international recognition as the voice of the Syrian people.

Delegates said the body would carry representation for ethnic Kurds, Christians, Alawites and women.

Bassem Said Ishak, of the SNC, said the Kurds required 48 hours to get the approval of their leadership.

The new body will also have a military council that will include the Free Syrian Army.

The backers of the new body hope it will boost the mainstream of the Syrian opposition and sideline any extremist elements.

Violence continued inside Syria on Sunday.

Opposition activists said government forces had attacked an area along the border with Turkey, after rebels had captured a crossing point.

The activists said helicopters and artillery units had bombarded the Ras al-Ain border area.

Clashes were also reported in Damascus, Albu Kamal near the Iraqi border, Irbin and in Deir Ezzor in the east.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military said the shell from Syria that hit a military post in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights was stray fire from fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israel was “ready for any development” on the border with Syria.

Israel and Syria are still technically at war, and a UN force patrols the buffer zone.

Moaz al-Khatib

  • Born 1960
  • Son of long-standing imam of Damascus’s Grand Umayyad mosque
  • Studied applied geophysics
  • Imam of Grand Umayyad mosque
  • Detained by Syrian military intelligence
  • Fled Syria for Cairo in July 2012

Syrian opposition groups are preparing for a crucial meeting on Sunday in the Qatari capital, Doha, to discuss how to form a more united front.

The meeting could lead to a replacement for the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition body in exile.

The SNC has been criticized as out of touch by rebel forces in Syria, and the opposition is also split ideologically.

The Doha talks come a day after rebels in northern Syria launched an offensive to win control of a key airbase.

Video posted on the internet on Saturday showed fighters attacking the strategically important Taftanaz base in the north with multiple rocket launchers, mortars and other weaponry.

Activists said the fighting at Taftanaz, which is crucial for government supply lines into northern Syria, continued into Saturday evening, although state media said government forces had repelled the assault.

In recent months, the government forces have been making increasing use of air power to strike areas held by the rebels, who lack anti-aircraft weapons to deter the attacks.

The SNC will be looking to broaden its ranks and agree on a common platform at the conference.

However, other groups and opposition figures will also be present, including respected dissident Riad Seif.

Riad Seif is being apparently being suggested by the US as the head of a new government-in-exile which would be dubbed the Syrian National Initiative.

“An alternative to the regime is dearly needed,” Riad Seif told the Reuters news agency.

“We are talking about a temporary period that begins with forming a political leadership until a national assembly that represents all Syrians meets in Damascus, once Assad falls,” he added.

What may emerge from the meeting is a new leadership body for the Syrian opposition separate from the SNC but including some figures from it, our correspondent reports.

The US is hoping a new leadership will help unify the disparate opposition elements and bring a successful conclusion to an uprising that has killed more than 36,000 people since protests against President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011.

Earlier this week, American officials signaled the opposition needed to be expanded from just the SNC to take in more of those operating inside Syria.

Divisions have arisen not just between those in Syria and opposition figures abroad, but also between Islamist and secularist groups.

A previous opposition meeting in Cairo in July accepted that the Assad government must fall but failed to appoint a committee to act for the opposition internationally.

Representatives at Doha will include various other religious and secular groupings, plus Kurdish figures and dissident members of Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect.

The question of apparent brutality by some rebel units has also come to the fore ahead of the Doha meeting.

Video footage which emerged on Friday appeared to show rebel forces beating and then shooting dead a group of prisoners from pro-government forces who were cowering on the floor.

Although nothing certain has been established about the footage, a radical Islamist faction called the al-Nusra Front has been named in connection with the killings at Saraqeb, near the city of Idlib.

The UN has said the video could be evidence of a war crime.

On Friday, the US said it “condemned human rights violations by any party in Syria”.

State department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “There is no justification for that kind of behavior ever. Anyone committing atrocities should be held to account.”

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Syrian opposition activists say they have shot down a military helicopter over the capital, Damascus.

The Free Syrian Army said the aircraft had been firing at people in the north-eastern district of Jobar, and that it had crashed in neighboring Qabun.

State television confirmed that a helicopter had come down in Qabun.

On Sunday, opposition activists said government forces had massacred more than 300 people during their assault on the south-western suburb of Darayya.

Video footage and photographs have emerged, showing scores of bodies, including those of women and children.


Syrian opposition activists say they have shot down a military helicopter over Damascus

Syrian opposition activists say they have shot down a military helicopter over Damascus


State media blamed the opposition for the killings and said Darayya had been “cleansed of terrorist remnants”.

The chairman of the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, said the killings might constitute a war crime.

According to opposition activists, the military helicopter was shot down as it was bombarding Jobar, as heavy fighting broke out between rebels and government forces.

Witnesses told the Reuters news agency the helicopter burst into flames after being hit by a projectile during an exchange of fire and crashed in a narrow residential street in Qabun.

“It was flying overhead the eastern part of the city and firing all morning. The rebels had been trying to hit it for about an hour, and finally they did,” said Abu Bakr, a local activist.

Activists posted video footage online which appears to show a burning helicopter crashing to the ground. Rebels can be heard shouting: “Allahu Akbar (God is greatest).”

State TV confirmed that a helicopter had crashed near the al-Ghufran mosque in Qabun, though it did not say if it had been shot down.

A spokesman for the FSA’s Badr Battalion in Damascus, Omar al-Qabuni, told the AFP news agency that the body of the pilot had been found.

“It was in revenge for the Darayya massacre,” he added.

The FSA also claimed to have shot down a Mig-23 fighter jet on 13 August in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour.

The helicopter appears to have been taking part in an increasingly fierce attempt by government forces to regain control of the capital’s suburbs, and heavy clashes are said to have erupted after it came down.

On Sunday, military helicopters were firing rockets at Jobar and the neighboring districts of Zamalka and Irbin, activists said.

Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad has reiterated his claim that a “foreign” conspiracy is behind the uprising in Syria and promised that he would not allow it to succeed “whatever the price might be”.

“What is happening right now is not just a plot directed against Syria but the region as a whole, of which Syria is a foundational stone,” he was quoted as saying by the state news agency, Sana.

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Syrian opposition activists say scores of bodies have been found in a town near the capital, Damascus, accusing government troops of a “massacre”.

Many of those killed in the town of Darayya were victims of execution-style killings, the activists said.

According to unconfirmed reports, 200 bodies were discovered in houses and basement shelters.

Without commenting on the activists’ claim, Syrian state TV said Darayya was being “cleansed of terrorist remnants”.

Meanwhile, Syrian Vice-President Farouq al-Shara has greeted an Iranian delegation in Damascus, quashing weeks of speculation that he had defected to the opposition.

President Bashar al-Assad, who also met the Iranian delegation, said Syria would continue its current policy “whatever the cost” and accused Western nations of a regional conspiracy.

The forces of President Bashar al-Assad launched an assault on Darayya on Saturday, after days of heavy bombardment.

Syrian opposition activists say scores of bodies have been found in a town near Damascus, accusing government troops of a "massacre

Syrian opposition activists say scores of bodies have been found in a town near Damascus, accusing government troops of a "massacre

The attack was part of a wider campaign to reclaim the southern outskirts of Damascus, where rebels have been regrouping since being driven out a month ago.

Activists on the ground later posted unverified video footage on the internet, which shows rows of bodies side by side in the Abu Auleiman al-Darani mosque.

The activists say that many of the victims had gunshot wounds to the head and chest and were killed during house-to-house raids by government troops.

“Assad’s army has committed a massacre in Darayya,” an opposition member told Reuters.

The activist added that most of the victims had been killed at close range, and some died from sniper fire.

The opposition Local Coordination Committees group put the death toll for Saturday at 440 across Syria.

Another opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says 320 people were killed in Darayya over five days, not on Saturday alone.

The claims by the activists have not been independently verified because of restrictions placed on foreign media across Syria.

The official Syrian state news agency said: “Our heroic armed forces cleansed Darayya from remnants of armed terrorist groups who committed crimes against the sons of the town and scared them and sabotaged and destroyed public and private property.”

Meanwhile Vice-President Farouq al-Shara was seen entering his office for a meeting with an Iranian delegation, following weeks of rumors that he had defected.

State media said a “fake” email had been sent out saying Farouq al-Shara had been sacked and that this was “completely wrong”.

After welcoming the Iranian team, President Bashar al-Assad accused some Western and regional countries of trying to “deviate Syria from its stance”.

State news agency Sana quoted him as saying: “Because Syria is the cornerstone, foreign powers are targeting it so their conspiracy succeeds across the entire region.”

Local activists say the type of mass killing reportedly carried out in Darayya, with dozens of bodies being discovered following government raids, has increased in recent months.

Human Rights Watch said it was not a new pattern, but was now happening in more areas and in greater numbers.

An earlier report from United Nations observers found that both sides had carried out massacres, but the Syrian army was responsible for a far greater number of deaths.

Fighting continued in other parts of Syria on Sunday, including in the second city of Aleppo, where fighter jets dropped bombs on rebel-held positions in what was described as the fiercest fighting there in the past week.

In a separate development, the head of the UN mission to Syria left the country after the mission had been wound up.

Senegalese Lt. Gen Babacar Gaye joined a UN convoy to Lebanon on Saturday.

Last week, the UN decided against extending the mission, which was originally part of a six-point peace plan for Syria.

However, the ceasefire mandated by the plan never took hold and rising violence forced the UN monitors to be confined to their hotels since June.


Foreign ministers from the Arab League are due to meet in the Saudi city of Jeddah for talks over Syrian crisis.

The ministers are expected to discuss a new envoy to Syria to replace Kofi Annan, who resigned earlier this month.

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the US and Turkey are working together on detailed plans to support the Syrian opposition.

Fighting has continued in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and the second city of Aleppo.

Speaking on a visit to Istanbul, Hillary Clinton said both the US and Turkey were making preparations to respond to the possible collapse of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the use of chemical weapons and increases in the number of cross-border refugees.

Kofi Annan resigned from his position as UN-Arab League envoy to Syria earlier this month, after his proposed six-point peace plan failed to come into effect and violence escalated.

Foreign ministers from the Arab League are due to meet in the Saudi city of Jeddah for talks over Syrian crisis

Foreign ministers from the Arab League are due to meet in the Saudi city of Jeddah for talks over Syrian crisis

On the agenda for foreign ministers attending Sunday’s emergency meeting in Jeddah will be Kofi Annan’s replacement – tipped by diplomats to be the veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi.

At the table will be envoys from Saudi Arabia and Qatar – leading backers of the rebels in Syria.

The mandate of the United Nations observer mission in Syria – which now comprises some 150 observers – is due to run out in a week’s time.

But UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says there still need to be people on the ground to make impartial assessments of the military situation.

The Security Council will discuss the issue on Thursday, but there is little consensus on the council, with Syrian ally Russia calling for an extension and the US skeptical about prolonging the mission.

Instead, the US is taking steps outside the structures of the UN to support Syrian opposition groups, such as the setting up of the working group with Turkey announced by Hillary Clinton in her meeting with her Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu on Saturday.

“Our number-one goal is to hasten the end of the bloodshed and the Assad regime,” she said.

“Our intelligence services, our military have very important responsibilities and roles to play so we are going to be setting up a working group to do exactly that.”

A “range of contingencies” was discussed, including the possible use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, Hillary Clinton added.

Meanwhile, inside Syria fighting is continuing.

Syrian state TV said authorities were hunting “terrorists” who had set off a bomb in Marjeh, an exclusive district of Damascus near the central bank, and who were “shooting at random to spark panic among citizens”.

At about the same time, another blast went off near Tishrin Stadium close by, reported state news agency Sana.

Hours later, Sana reported that a bus had been attacked in a Damascus suburb, said AP news agency, with six passengers from the central province of Hama killed. It blamed the attack on the “terrorists”.

Violence erupted again between the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and government forces in the country’s largest city, Aleppo.

Activists said the army pounded areas south-west of Salah al-Din, from which the rebels retreated on Thursday.

Reports from Syria are difficult to confirm because of restrictions on reporters working there.



Arab League foreign ministers have called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, as rebels are encouraged by last week’s assassinations in Damascus.

The rebels said the deaths of four top officials were a severe blow to the government.

Islamist rebels where he is are receiving weapons and money from outside.

Fighting continued overnight.

Government forces recaptured parts of Damascus, the suburbs of Barzeh and Mezzeh, which had fallen into rebel hands.

There and in other quarters, activists said a number of suspected rebels or sympathisers were summarily executed.

Syrian state TV on Monday showed images of Syrian forces going house to house and kicking down doors in Damascus, searching for any remaining rebel fighters.

Fighting was also reported in Syria’s second city, Aleppo.

Arab League foreign ministers have called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down

Arab League foreign ministers have called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down

After an emergency meeting in Qatar, Arab League foreign ministers called on President Bashar al-Assad to resign rapidly, and offered his family safe passage out of Syria.

They also called on the Syrian opposition to form a transitional government.

The call appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

Bashar al-Assad held a meeting with his new army chief of staff and gave him instructions, reportedly including a drive to crush armed rebels.

The meeting followed last week’s attack in Damascus, in which four senior officials were killed in what the Syrian government described as a suicide blast.

Rebels outside Damascus say the assassinations were a blow to the government.

They said the once-feared secret police were now a spent force, and the government was relying entirely on a weakened military.

However, the rebels are divided, between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Salafists (hardline Islamists).

The Salafists are better armed, he says, because they are receiving weapons and money from outside.

Meanwhile, the EU is to tighten sanctions and an arms embargo against President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

EU foreign ministers agreed to freeze the assets of 26 individuals and three firms close to the Syrian government.

They will be added to a blacklist which already contains the names of 129 people and 49 entities.

EU member states will also be required to send inspectors to board planes and ships believed to be carrying weapons or suspicious supplies to Damascus.

The inspections will only take place on the territory or in the territorial waters of EU states.

Britain and France are calling for more EU aid to refugees from Syria.

On Sunday, the US signed an agreement to give Jordan an additional $100 million to help refugees fleeing from Syria.

The elite fourth division of the Syrian army, commanded by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher, led the attack on the Barzeh area of Damascus, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In Mezzeh, government forces “executed” at least 20 men in the area, some activists told the Reuters news agency by telephone.

The battle for control of Aleppo is still going on.

State TV played down the scale of the violence, saying troops were merely hunting down “terrorists”.

Rebel commanders have vowed to take it over completely and use it as a base for liberating the whole country, but state TV said many armed rebels had fled across the border to Turkey.

Rebels were now in control of the Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey. Turkey is not allowing non-Syrian nationals through so the border remains effectively closed.

There were also reports of violence in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour on Sunday. Witnesses told Reuters that it was being attacked with artillery and rockets from helicopter gunships.