Continued from page 1

Chaos is mounting inside Syria as the country’s civil war deepens. President Bashar Assad’s regime has suffered a series of setbacks over the past month: Four senior security officials were assassinated in Damascus, there have been a string of high-level defections including the prime minister this week, and government forces have struggled to put down rebel challenges in Damascus and Aleppo.

But the regime has far more powerful weapons than the rebels and retains a firm grip on much of the country.

Aleppo, Syria’s commercial center, holds great symbolic and strategic importance. Some 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Turkish border, it has been a pillar of regime support during the uprising. An opposition victory there would allow easier access for weapons and fighters from Turkey, where many rebels are based.

A foreign diplomat in Turkey told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the rebels were likely not receiving any heavy weapons, making any chance of their taking over Aleppo exceedingly low. The diplomat asked that his name and details of his position not be published because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

There has been a marked increase in the number of refugees fleeing to Turkey in the past two days as Aleppo-based activists reported fresh clashes.

Some 3,350 people crossed the border overnight and Wednesday to escape the escalating violence, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported Wednesday. Some 50,000 Syrians have now found refuge in Turkey. Even more refugees have crossed into Jordan and Lebanon.

“Unfortunately, there is a human tragedy going on in Syria,” Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan said Wednesday, keeping up Turkey’s criticism of the violence.

The regime has been hit by a wave of defections, most recently by Prime Minister Riad Hijab.

The rebel Free Syrian Army and a Jordanian security official said Hijab arrived in Jordan on Wednesday, two days after hiding in a “safe location” inside Syria near the border.

FSA leader Ahmed Kassem, who told the Associated Press on Monday that Hijab had defected to Jordan, said Wednesday that he had actually been inside Syrian territory for the past two days waiting to cross. He said his earlier account was meant to “confuse the Syrian regime over the prime minister’s whereabouts.”

A Jordanian security official said Hijab’s escape was coordinated between the Jordanian army and FSA. He insisted on anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the media.

Assad has been forced to rely on a shrinking list of allies, including Iran. Senior Iranian envoy Saeed Jalili visited Damascus on Tuesday, appearing with Assad in a show of solidarity.

The rebels have blasted Iran’s influence in the country, and over the weekend rebel forces intercepted a bus carrying 48 Iranians and kidnapped them. Rebels claimed the men are military personnel, including some members of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard who were on a “reconnaissance mission” to help Assad’s crackdown on the uprising.

Iran initially said the 48 were pilgrims visiting a Shiite shrine in Damascus. The Iranian foreign minister said Wednesday that some of the kidnapped Iranians are retired members of the army and Revolutionary Guard.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has announced openly that some of the pilgrims kidnapped are retired members of the Guard and the Army,” Iran’s official IRNA news agency quoted Salehi as saying during a visit to Turkey.

Story Continues →