Los Angeles Times –
BEIRUT — As Turkey sought to increase its military presence along its border with Syria, opposition fighters inside Syria were waging an offensive Tuesday to seize a strategic city in Idlib province.
The offensive led to some of the most intense government air attacks on the city of Maarat al-Nuaman to date and left more than 60 people dead, at least 40 of them civilians, activists said. They were among at least 115 people killed across the country Tuesday in the ongoing conflict.
The clashes and government airstrikes came as NATO said Tuesday that it has plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary after almost a week of cross-border shelling between the two countries.
Last week, five Turks were killed when a Syrian mortar landed in a Turkish town. On Monday, Turkey sent 25 fighter jets to an air base near the border.
“Obviously, Turkey has a right to defend herself within international law,” said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking at the start of a defense ministers meeting in Brussels. “I would add to that that obviously Turkey can rely on NATO solidarity.”
In Maarat al-Nuaman, Free Syrian Army rebels launched an offensive Monday to seize the city from government control and attacked numerous military checkpoints.
“The fighting won’t end until all the checkpoints are gone,” said Ahmad Halabi, an activist in the city. “The planning has been ongoing for two months, but we were waiting to unite the ranks and get the weapons.”
For months, regular artillery attacks on the city have been launched from the checkpoints, he said. But the rebel push, if successful, would do more than just put the city of more than 100,000 residents under opposition control.
The city is strategically situated on the main highway linking Aleppo and the capital, Damascus. If the rebels are able to seize this part of the highway, they could control the road from the Turkish border and the central city of Hama, ensuring a crucial supply line for weapons and aid, Halabi said.
It would also disrupt the government reinforcements and isolate the few army and security forces bases left in Idlib.
Meanwhile, in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, two suicide car bombings Monday night targeted an air force intelligence compound, the latest in a series of bombings by rebel forces targeting President Bashar Assad’s security and military buildings.
The al-Qaida-affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement on its Facebook page.
The attack began with a car bomb loaded with 9 tons of explosives and was followed 25 minutes later by another explosion from an ambulance rigged with 1 ton of explosives that arrived at the scene along with other ambulances, according to the group’s statement.
Mortar attacks and a gunfight followed the twin bombings, activists said.
In another Damascus suburb on Tuesday, activists discovered 25 charred bodies in the orchards of Daraya.
The discovery of mass executions of civilians, who activists say are killed at the hands of government forces, is occurring with regularity across Syria.