• Will U.S. ramp up support for rebels?
• Annan steps down with peace plan in tatters
DAMASCUS - The Syrian army is engaged in a "crucial and heroic battle," President Bashar al-Assad said Wednesday in a speech published by official media agency SANA on the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the army.
"The army is engaged in a crucial and heroic battle... on which the destiny of the nation and its people rests. The enemy is among us today, using agents to destabilize the country, the security of its citizens... and continues to exhaust our economic and scientific resources," he said.
"They (the enemy) wanted to deprive the people of their national decision... but they were astonished to see these proud people, who confronted their plans and defeated them," said Assad.
|U.N.-Arab League mediator Kofi Annan leaves after a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva. REUTERS|
"My trust in you is great, and the trust of our people in you that you are ... the defender of its just causes," Assad said
"You men of the country... you have demonstrated, in dealing with the war waged against our country by the terrorist gangs, that you possess an iron will and a keen awareness."
"Our military remains the backbone of the motherland," Assad said.
Assad pushed his armed forces to redouble their efforts. "Today you are invited to increase your readiness and willingness for the armed forces to be the shield, wall and fortress of our nation," he said.
Damascus does not recognize the popular revolt that erupted in March 2011, describing opposition activists and rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) alike as "armed terrorist groups" financed by foreign powers and sent to sow chaos.
Assad's speech came as clashes escalated in a number of areas including Aleppo, where the FSA on Tuesday announced that it had captured three police stations in the heart of the country's commercial capital.
Aleppo, which for much of the anti-Assad uprising had been relatively stable, now is the site of the most vicious fighting. For nearly two weeks, the Syrian Army has been battling rebel fighters for control of the city, and for the first time, the United Nations said on Wednesday what rebels had been saying for days: the Syrian Army was using jet fighters in its operations. And they are not just flying, as in the past; now, according to the United Nations monitor mission in Syria and videos showing flashes of light bursting from dark jets, they are firing.
"Our observers confirmed fighter aircraft firing rockets and cannons — heavy machine-gun fire," said Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for the United Nations monitor mission.
This week, it has become increasingly clear to outside military analysts that the fighting in Aleppo is likely to drag on. Helicopters thwacked overhead Wednesday as clashes broke out around several more police stations, which have become a focal point for rebels seeking to hold neighborhoods or gain ground.
Meanwhile, international envoy Kofi Annan is stepping down with his April peace plan for Syria in tatters in the face of raging violence. UN chief Ban ki-Moon paid tribute to Annan for his efforts in the "most difficult" assignment of ending the bloodshed that human rights monitors say has claimed more than 20,000 lives in Syria since an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule erupted in March last year.
But he said the former UN chief would now step down at the end of the month and the search had begun for a successor.
"I wish to express my deepest gratitude to Mr. Annan for the determined and courageous efforts he has made as the Joint Special Envoy for Syria," Ban said.
"Kofi Annan deserves our profound admiration for the selfless way in which he has put his formidable skills and prestige to this most difficult and potentially thankless of assignments," he added.
The UN and Arab League named Annan as its envoy on the Syria conflict on February 23 and he brokered a six-point peace plan that was supposed to begin with a ceasefire from April 12.
But the truce never took hold and the United Nations has begun winding down an observer mission that was supposed to oversee it ahead of the expiry of its mandate later this month.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was in Jordan on Thursday for talks on Syria with King Abdullah II.
"They agreed that strong international pressure needs to be sustained to make it clear that Assad must go, and that the Syrian people deserve to determine their own future," Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters.
On Friday, the UN General Assembly will vote on a largely symbolic Arab-drafted resolution calling on Assad to stand down.
Panetta warns Assad
At the weekend, aboard a U.S. military plane, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Assad on Sunday that the assault on his own population in Aleppo would be a nail in his coffin.
Fighting raged on the second day of a fierce government offensive, as the United Nations said 200,000 civilians had fled and many were trapped after Assad deployed tanks and attack helicopters to try to dislodge the rebels.
The Syrian opposition says government forces are preparing to carry out "massacres" and is begging the international community to provide heavy weapons to enable rebels to meet the regime onslaught.
"It's pretty clear that Aleppo is another tragic example of the kind of indiscriminate violence that the Assad regime has committed against its own people," Panetta told reporters on a military plane en route to Tunisia.
"And in many ways, if they continue this kind of tragic attack on their own people in Aleppo, I think ultimately it will be a nail in Assad's coffin," he said.
"He's just assuring that the Assad regime will come to an end by virtue of the kind of violence they're committing against their own people."
According to Panetta, Assad has "lost all legitimacy, and the more violence he engages in, the more he makes the case that the regime is coming to an end."
It's no longer a question of whether the regime will fall, "it's when," he added.
More than 20,000 people have been killed, including 14,000 civilians, since the uprising against Assad's rule erupted in March 2011, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"The United States and the international community have made very clear that this is intolerable, and have brought diplomatic and economic pressure on Syria to stop this kind of violence, to have Assad step down and to transition to a democratic form of government," Panetta said.
Panetta said the United States was paying particular attention to securing Syria's chemical and biological weapon sites, especially by maintaining "close cooperation with countries in the region." The myth of Iraq's nuclear weapons was used as an excuse to invade and occupy Iraq.
U.S. sends covert aid to rebels
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama has signed a secret order allowing the CIA and other American agencies to support rebels seeking to overthrow the Assad regime, a U.S. government source told Reuters.
Obama reportedly gave the order, known as an intelligence "finding," earlier this year. The presidential finding also provides for U.S. collaboration with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.
The full extent of the assistance the "finding" allows the CIA to give the Syrian rebels is unclear. It is also unknown precisely when Obama signed the order.
The Obama administration has been open about providing non-military support to the Syrian opposition. On Wednesday, the State Department said it had allotted a total of $25 million for "non-lethal” assistance to the Free Syrian Army. Some of that money may be used to buy communications devices such as encrypted radios, a U.S official said. The State Department also said the United States has set aside $64 million in humanitarian aid for the Syrian people.
Last year, Obama also signed an initial "finding" authorizing U.S. support for Libyan rebels seeking to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.
Also on Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury confirmed it had granted authorization for Washington’s representative of the Free Syrian Army to conduct financial transactions on behalf of the rebel group. Reports that the Syrian Support Group had been allowed to do so first appeared last week.
Brian Becker, director of the ANSWER anti-war coalition, believes the revelation of Obama's order doesn't represent any shift in terms of U.S. strategy towards Syria.
"All that does is reveal that the so-called diplomacy, the so-called looking for a negotiated settlement is a fraud – that the diplomacy is, in fact, a form of perjury," he told RT. "The reality is that the U.S. government – the Obama administration with the Pentagon and the CIA – has been neck-deep coordinating military operations to overthrow a sovereign government in Syria."
He noted that there would have been no civil war going on in Syria if not for foreign intervention.
"The decisive factor in the equation for civil war is U.S. intervention," he said. "And I would say, frankly, the Obama administration is guilty of war crimes against the Syrian people having cynically manipulated the situation. They have the blood of the Syrian people on their hands."
Secret-order leak a smokescreen
Asia Times Online correspondent Pepe Escobar told RT that the leak's timing was intended to distort the true nature of Washington's covert operations on the ground in Syria.
"This intelligence finding signed by Obama – that's the code for a secret order – this was signed six months ago. So the fact that Reuters has only been allowed now to report about it proves that there have been high deliberations in Washington: "should we let people know about what they already know?"
"In fact, the Washington Post two weeks ago had already reported about it, and when the CIA wants to leak something in the U.S., they usually go to the Washington Post. The CIA and Mossad, are on the ground (in Syria), side by side working with the Qataris, the Turks, the Saudis and a swarm of jihadis coming from everywhere, but especially from across the border in Iraq,” he argues.
Escobar says the leak was intended to make it look as though Washington was leading the Syrian campaign from behind the scenes, when in fact the U.S. is "leading from the front lines alongside al-Qaeda-style jihadists, Qatari intelligence, and Turkish logistics."
He says the Western drive against Syria follows the breakdown in the international order caused by the 2011 Libyan intervention.
"There's no semblance of international law since what was decided in Libya last year. The maneuvering and the wording of UN resolution 1973, authorizing war – a no-fly zone was actually war – against Libya. That was the end of international law as we know it. Nation-states don't matter anymore. If you are a neo-colonial power, like Britain or France, or an empire like the U.S., you can trample on nations' sovereignty anywhere, anyhow, anyplace, and this is exactly what's happening. That's why Russia has been opposed to it from the start, because Moscow sees that as the end of the sovereignty of nation-states," he says.
He added that Syria's disintegration into a weak – or failed – state is part of Israel's long-term designs on Iran.
"The battle of Aleppo could become an extended (rerun of) Lebanon in the 1970s. This is the 'Lebanonization' of whole tracts of Northern Syria, in fact. And this, by the way, is the Israeli strategy. Israel wants a 'Lebanonized' and 'Somalized' Syria, like the new Somalia in Libya; a very weak country with sectarian strife… an overextended army, and of course, innocuous against Israel. So this means opening the way for an Israeli attack against Iran in the next few months or perhaps in 2013."
-Reuters, TAAN, RT, Al-Akhbar