BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey sealed its border with Syria to trucks on Wednesday, effectively cutting off a trade relationship once worth almost $3 billion with the embattled nation, as regime forces fought to evict rebels from the country's largest city.
Two more Syrian diplomats, the envoy to Cyprus and her husband, the former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, have also defected, according to the opposition Syrian National Council, in the latest sign of fraying support for the regime among its own elites. The announcement follows the televised appearance Tuesday night of a defected regime general calling for a new Syria.
Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan said deteriorating security was behind the closure of a border through which Turkey once exported food and construction materials to the entire Middle East, though the volume of traffic had dropped 87 percent since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.
"We have serious concerns over the safety of Turkish trucks regarding their entry and return from Syria," he said, adding that three border crossings were in rebel hands. Syrians seeking refuge or to resupply would still be allowed in.
Turkey was a Syrian ally before the uprising against authoritarian President Bashar Assad began 16 months ago, but Ankara has since turned into a harsh critic of Damascus as the regime has pursued its bloody crackdown on the revolt. Now, Turkish territory along the of the countries' 566-mile (911-kilometer) border is used as a staging ground for rebel fighters as well as a haven for thousands of refugees fleeing violence that activists say has killed 19,000 people so far.
Northern Syria, especially the province of Idlib, has seen some of the heaviest and steadiest fighting between government forces and the rebels, and large swathes of the countryside are under opposition control.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Washington expressed confidence in the rebel advances, saying that they were taking more and more territory.
"It will eventually result in a safe haven inside Syria, which will then provide a base for further actions by the opposition," she said Tuesday, urging anti-Assad forces to develop institutions and protect the rights of all Syrians.
The ability of the Libyan rebels to create a liberated area in the east of their country was key to their successful battle to oust longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year. However, the Syrian rebels' hold over territory is tenuous: they do not control any major urban areas, and are not backed by NATO's war planes the way the Libyans were.
Damascus' ally Russia has ensured that the kind of U.N. resolutions that allowed Western military action in Libya would not be repeated in Syria.
Yet late Tuesday, Moscow's patience with the Assad regime seemed to wear thin when it warned Damascus against any use of chemical weapons. The Kremlin statement reminding Syria of its international obligations followed the Assad regime's announcement earlier this week that it has chemical weapons and would use them in case of foreign aggression.
Russia's warning reflected a degree of irritation with Assad and followed earlier Russian rebukes over the heavy-handed use of force and slow pace of reforms.
In remarks Wednesday, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was back in his old role of Syria's defender, criticizing new European efforts to enforce an arms embargo as "unilateral sanctions" and a "blockade."
The main battle in the country is currently just 40 miles (60 kilometers) from the Turkish border in Syria's largest city and commercial hub of Aleppo, which an alliance of rebel forces attacked on Saturday. They infiltrated sympathetic neighborhoods in the north and south and have since been fighting toward the historic old city at the center, a U.N. world heritage site.
"The situation in Aleppo is currently very difficult. There is shelling in civilian areas and since yesterday some 40 people have been killed," said Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed, describing fierce battles in neighborhoods all over the city, including some near the center. "Shooting and clashes are going on nonstop."
Saeed maintained that the government counterattacks were just sporadic hit and run actions and the rebels still hold many neighborhoods in the northeast. There have been reports from other activists, however, that the regime is rushing fresh troops to Aleppo.
In rare dispatch about the situation in Aleppo, the state news agency maintained that government forces were clearing rebels out, including their stronghold in the Sakhour neighborhood.
The government eventually crushed a major assault on Damascus last week by calling in attack helicopters and heavy weapons that devastated neighborhoods sympathetic to the rebels. Regime forces followed up the shelling with door to door searches that were still going on Wednesday to flush out remaining rebel sympathizers.
Since Tuesday, activists and local residents in Aleppo have reported Syrian forces using similar heavy weapons, including attack helicopters, in a bid to crush the rebel advance.
While government forces are stretched thin by fighting taking place across the country in cities like Homs and Hama in central Syria, to Deir el-Zour in the west, Daraa in the south and Idlib province in the north, they can defeat any single rebel assault by concentrating their forces. Aleppo and Damascus are the two largest cities and key to the regime's survival.
Yet even as Syria's powerful military holds fast in the battle against the rebels, there are signs of cracks among the elites of the regime with the recent high profile defections.
Lamia al-Hariri, Damascus' envoy to Cyprus and her husband Abdel Latif Dabbagh, the former ambassador to the UAE follow in the footsteps of the ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, who defected two weeks earlier.
SNC member Shadi al-Khesh in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi said other Syrian diplomats are expected to quit their posts soon, though he was unable to provide specifics.
"I think you will see many Syrian diplomats defect," he said.
Late Tuesday, a top military commander and close friend of Assad confirmed his defection. Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, son of a former defense minister, said in a video broadcast on Al-Arabiya TV that Syrians must work together to build a new country.
It was his first public appearance since he left Syria earlier this month. French officials later confirmed that he was in France.
The new commander for the 300-member UN observer force, Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye, and the U.N. official for peacekeeping operations, Hervé Ladsous, were in Damascus Wednesday to assess the prospects for a U.N. peace plan that is being widely ignored.
Half of the 300-member U.N. observer force, meant to monitor the non-existent ceasefire, has left the country.
"I think diplomats have to be optimistic and that's no joke, I think we have to hope," Ladsous told reporters. "We have to hope that the whole process gains traction, that the vicious circle of violence can cease, and that some political solution and first and foremost some political dialogue can get started."
Fraser reported from Ankara. Associated Press writers Natalya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Adam Schreck in Dubai contributed to this report.