Gunmen storm Pro-Assad Syrian TV channelBy: Oliver Holmes
BEIRUT – Gunmen stormed a pro-government Syrian TV channel headquarters yesterday, bombing buildings and shooting dead three employees, state media said, in one of the boldest attacks yet on a symbol of the authoritarian state.
President Bashar Assad declared late on Tuesday that his country was “at war”. United States intelligence officials said the Syrian government was “holding fairly firm” and digging in for a long struggle against rebel forces who are getting stronger.
The dawn attack on Ikhbariya television’s offices, located 20 km south of the capital, as well as overnight fighting on the outskirts of Damascus showed 16 months of violence now rapidly encroaching on the capital.
Ikhbariya resumed broadcasting shortly after the attack, displaying bullet holes in its two-storey concrete building and pools of blood on the floor. One building had been almost completely destroyed.
“I heard a small explosion then a huge explosion and gunmen ran in. They ransacked the offices and entirely destroyed the newsroom,” an employee who works at the offices in the town of Drousha told state media at the scene.
The Syrian media are tightly regulated by the Ministry of Information. Although Ikhbariya is privately owned, opponents of Assad say it is a government mouthpiece.
After Tuesday’s fighting unprecedented in its intensity around Damascus, violence appeared to ease off around the capital following the attack on the television complex. But rebel forces were clearly becoming stronger and more ambitious.
During the pro-democracy revolt against the Assad family’s four-decade rule, Ikhbariya has been pushing to counter what it says is a campaign of misinformation by Western and Arab satellite channels on the uprising that began in March 2011.
“We live in a real state of war from all angles,” Assad told a cabinet he appointed on Tuesday, in a speech broadcast on state television. “When we are in a war, all policies and all sides and all sectors need to be directed at winning this war.”
The declaration marks a change of rhetoric from Assad, who had long dismissed the uprising against him as the work of scattered militants in “terrorist gangs” funded from abroad.
The rambling speech – Assad also commented on subjects as far afield as the benefits of renewable energy – left little room for compromise. He denounced the West, which “takes and never gives, and this has been proven at every stage”.
Despite the deterioration in Syria, so far there has been no sign of an appetite for full-scale Western intervention. However, last week’s shooting down of a Turkish warplane by Syrian air defences has focused attention on a volatile situation on Turkey’s southeastern border with Syria.
“We will not refrain from teaching a lesson to anyone trying to test Turkey’s greatness,” Erdogan said yesterday, referring to the incident near the countries’ maritime borders.
Turkey’s land border territories, hosting over 33 000 refugees and units of the rebel Free Syria Army (FSA), are quickly becoming a potential flashpoint. Tuesday’s comments by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan may if anything have added further uncertainty to the situation there.
Erdogan said on Tuesday that Syrian military elements approaching the border and posing a threat would be deemed a military target. He made no public clarification of new terms of engagement issued to troops.
“With Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement, and if Syria complies with it, Turkey will have by itself declared a de facto ‘buffer zone’,” Cengiz Candar, columnist for Radikal newspaper, wrote.
Turkey has in the past spoken of possible establishment of a ‘humanitarian corridor’ on Syrian soil – a venture that would inevitably require armed protection. But it has always insisted such a measure, if required by a rising tide of refugees or by evidence of massacres, would need international endorsement
United Nations investigators said yesterday Syrian government forces had committed human rights violations, including executions, across the country “on an alarming scale” during military operations in the past three months.
The report by the UN Human Rights Council, issued in Geneva, also listed killings and kidnappings by armed opposition groups trying to topple President Assad.
“The situation on the ground is dangerously and quickly deteriorating,” the report said.
Syria’s ambassador dismissed the accusations and threatened to end cooperation with international agencies.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States stood ready to support international envoy Kofi Annan’s push to find a diplomatic solution to Syria’s war yesterday, ahead of slated talks.
Speaking at the start of a European visit focused heavily on the Syrian bloodshed that has killed around 15 000 people, Clinton said she supported the former UN secretary general’s efforts to “prepare for a democratic transition that leads to a post-Assad Syria.”
“I’ve been in close consultation with special envoy Kofi Annan about the prospects for a meeting that would focus on a roadmap for political transition in Syria,” Clinton said during a visit to Helsinki.
Annan yesterday confirmed talks between world powers would take place in Geneva on Saturday, but plans have been beset by differences between the United States and Russia on the need for political transition.