Russian President Vladimir Putin, arriving in Britain before the G8 summit set to be dominated by disagreement over the US’ decision to send weapons to Syria’s rebels, said the West must not arm fighters who eat human flesh.
In Syria, rebels fought back on Sunday against forces of President Bashar al-Assad and his Lebanese Hezbollah allies near Aleppo, where al-Assad has announced a campaign to recapture the rebel-held north after seizing a key town this month.
A huge explosion shook the Mezze military airport on the western edge of Damascus, a major base for al-Assad’s elite Republican Guards and a source of rocket and artillery attacks against rebellious Sunni Muslim neighborhoods.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, said it appeared that a booby-trapped car had exploded at a roadblock near the compound, killing or wounding about 20 members of al-Assad’s forces.
“At least 10 soldiers were killed and at least 10 others were injured,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told reporters yesterday.
Syrian state media confirmed the blast that occurred late on Sunday, but have not released the number of those killed and injured.
After months of deliberations, Washington decided last week to send weapons to the rebels, saying that al-Assad’s forces had crossed a “red line” by using nerve gas.
The move throws the superpower’s weight behind the revolt and signals a potential turning point in global involvement in a two-year-old war that has already killed at least 93,000 people.
It has also infuriated Russia, Cold War-era ally of Syria, which has sold arms to al-Assad and used its veto at the UN Security Council to block resolutions against him.
Russia has dismissed US evidence that al-Assad’s forces used nerve gas. The White House said US President Barack Obama will try to lobby Putin to drop his support for al-Assad during at the summit.
After meeting British Prime Minister David Cameron in London, Putin said Russia wanted to create the conditions for a resolution of the conflict.
“One does not really need to support the people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the public and cameras,” Putin said. “Are these the people you want to support? Are they the ones you want to supply with weapons? Then this probably has little relation to the humanitarian values preached in Europe for hundreds of years.”
The incident Putin referred to was likely that of a rebel commander filmed last month cutting into the torso of a dead soldier and biting into a piece of one of his organs.
After meeting Putin, Cameron said the divide between Russia and the West over Syria could be bridged, although they disagreed about who was at fault.
Britain has not said whether it too will supply arms to the rebels, but the issue is contentious even within Cameron’s Conservative Party-led government.
“We clearly don’t think it’s the right thing to do now, or else we would have done it,” said British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, from the Liberal Democrat Party.
Washington hopes its backing will restore rebel momentum after al-Assad’s forces seized the initiative with the support of Hezbollah.
Just a few months ago, Western countries believed al-Assad’s days were numbered, but with Hezbollah’s support he was able to achieve a major victory this month in al-Qusayr and has announced major plans to seize the north. The UN said it fears for a bloodbath in the north.
Rebels say they are fighting back against the regimes offensives in the north. An opposition operations room in Aleppo said fighters had destroyed an army tank and killed 20 troops at Marat al-Arteek, a town where opposition sources say rebels are holding back an armored column sent to reinforce loyalists from Shiite villages.
“[Al-]Assad’s forces and Hezbollah are trying to control northern rural Aleppo, but they are being repelled and dealt heavy losses,” Colonel Abdeljabbar al-Okeidi, a Free Syrian Army commander in Aleppo, told al-Arabiya Television.
He said Hezbollah had sent up to 2,000 fighters to Aleppo and the surrounding areas, but was confident the opposition would prevail.
“Aleppo and [al-]Qusair are different. In Qusayr we were surrounded by villages that had been occupied by Hezbollah and by loyalist areas ... In Aleppo, we have a strategic depth and logistical support and we are better organized,” he said. “Aleppo will turn into the grave of these Hezbollah devils.”