With so many Syrians crossing the border in such a short period of time, some Lebanese are concerned that the influx could spark sectarian conflict in their own country, where recent clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites have left more than 20 dead.
Syrian state television reported, meanwhile, that Lt. Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyar, the country’s national security chief, died of wounds sustained Wednesday when a bomb planted by rebels detonated in a meeting of high-level security officials.
Ikhtiyar was the fourth member of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle killed by the explosion, which shattered the already fragile chances of a negotiated peace deal and brought the civil revolt that has raged for 16 months into the heart of Assad’s government.
Government forces shelled residential areas of Damascus and deployed tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters Friday, claiming they had made headway in their battle against rebel forces by retaking Midan, a neighborhood where some of the heaviest fighting had taken place in recent days. The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) claimed it had made a tactical retreat. “We pulled back to prepare other attacks,” said Malik Kurdi, deputy commander of the FSA.
The Syrian military also regained control of two border crossings between Syria and Turkey that the rebels had taken over on Thursday, though rebel fighters were still in control of another border crossing between Syria and Iraq.
The heavy fighting on Thursday and Friday left 431 dead across Syria, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a sign that the conflict may be headed toward a bloody endgame as the government struggles to regain control in Damascus and several smaller cities.
The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously on Friday to extend the life of the troubled U.N. observer force in Syria for another 30 days, avoiding an abrupt U.N. pullout only hours before the mission’s mandate was set to expire at midnight. The vote followed Thursday’s veto of a resolution that threatened Syria with tough new sanctions. Russia and China, which cast the vetoes, voted in favor of the temporary extension of the unarmed observer mission.
The resolution approved Friday, which was introduced by Britain, left open the possibility that the mandate of the U.N. mission could be extended longer if the violence subsides and if Syria withdraws its heavy weapons from the country’s restive towns. But the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, signaled that the fate of the U.N. operation remained in doubt. She said the United States had approved Friday’s action largely to give the blue helmets time to pack up their bags and “withdraw safely and. . .in an orderly fashion.”