Syrian foreign minister: Rebels no match for military

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BEIRUT — Syria’s foreign minister defiantly dismissed rebel forces and their international backers on Thursday as incapable of toppling the military defending Bashar Assad’s regime, even as condemnation grew over expanded offensives that activists say have claimed dozens of civilian lives in recent days.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem’s confident tone contrasted sharply with a series of recent blows to Assad, including high-level military and political defections and the ability of rebel guerrillas to stage bombings and abductions in the heart of the capital, Damascus.

The timing of al-Moallem’s interview on Syrian state TV also suggested attempts to reassure Assad’s supporters at a time when Damascus has few reliable allies remaining. Iran stands firmly behind Assad, but the critical bonds are with U.N. Security Council members China and Russia, which have blocked efforts to impose sanctions and other measures to pressure Syria.

A Syrian envoy, Bouthaina Shaaban, was in Beijing on Thursday and described talks with China’s foreign minister as “really great.”

“Those who think that the Syrian Arab army will be defeated are dreaming,” al-Moallem said.

He also repeated Syria’s strong denunciations of key rebel backers, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia — main rivals of Iran that would like to undercut Tehran’s most important alliance in the region. Syria has become perhaps the most complex proxy stakes of the Arab Spring, with Gulf Arab states, NATO member Turkey and the West working to weaken Assad’s regime.

The U.N. is groping for ways to remain relevant as violence has all but eclipsed efforts for a peace plan. A U.N. military observer mission ends Sunday and will be replaced by a new civilian office to try to push ahead diplomatic bids to end the more than 17-month civil war, which activists say has left more than 20,000 people dead and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

A U.N. report on Wednesday said war crimes have been committed on both sides, including by Syrian government forces and allied militiamen blamed for the deaths of more than 100 people, nearly half of them children, in the village of Houla in May.

During a visit to a refugee camp in Jordan, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius assailed Assad for “butchering his own people.”

“The sooner he goes the better,” he said.

Syrian forces, however, have stepped up campaigns to drive back rebel advances across Syria. One of the main battlegrounds is the country’s largest city, Aleppo, where some areas have been pounded by weeks of government shelling and airstrikes.

Another struck Thursday just after dawn, targeting a bread line outside a bakery in Aleppo and killing at least 10 people, activists said.

Mohammad al-Hassan, an Aleppo-based activist who saw the aftermath of the attack, told the Associated Press by telephone that the shells hit at 6:30 a.m. when most people line up for bread — a staple that is running in short supply — before the day gets too hot.

“Three shells hit the street near the bakery and people who had been waiting were hit by shrapnel,” he said. “There were people with their children there. It was like a river of blood.”

Al-Hassan said he saw dead bodies on the pavement and also spoke to witnesses at the scene. The two main activist groups, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, confirmed the details of the attack. The Observatory said 20 people were killed in shelling of Aleppo on Thursday, including at least 10 outside the bakery.

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