Syria Crisis Intensifies |

Syria State Media: Rebels Fired Chemical Weapons in North, 15 Killed

Rebels deny being behind the attack; SANA news agency says majority of casualties in Aleppo are civilians; report comes amid concerns that Assad's regime planning to use chemical weapons against rebels and residents.

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Syria's state news agency accused rebels on Tuesday of using chemical weapons in an attack in the northern province of Aleppo which it said killed 15 people.

"Terrorists fired a rocket containing chemical substances in the Khan al-Assal area of rural Aleppo and initial reports indicate that around 15 people were killed, most of them civilians," SANA news agency said.

A Syrian rebel commander denied reports that the opposition forces were behind the chemical weapon attack in Aleppo, saying the government had fired a rocket with chemical agents on the town of Khan al-Assal.

"We were hearing reports from early this morning about a regime attack on Khan al-Assal, and we believe they fired a Scud with chemical agents. Then suddenly we learned that the regime was turning these reports against us," said Qassim Saadeddine, a senior rebel and spokesman for the Higher Military Council in Aleppo. "The rebels were not behind this attack."

The report follows months of concerns over the possibility that President Bashar Assad's regime was planning to use chemical weapons against the rebel forces and civilians in Syria. Last week, the head of Israel's Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, said Assad was in fact preparing to make use of his chemical weapons cache, although he has yet to give an order for them to be used.

"Syria is no longer a whole country," Kochavi told the 13th Annual Herzliya Conference. Instead Syria should be seen as two countries, one belonging to Assad and the other to the rebels, he said, with the caveat that this was a slight exaggeration of the situation. Much of the country is now under rebel control, including areas on the outskirts of Aleppo, Kochavi added.

In fighting the Syrian opposition, the Assad regime has increased its use of advanced weaponry against civilians themselves. Signs of the uptick in violence include the Syrian military's use of Scud and M-600 missiles on populated areas of the country. To date, the number of such rockets fired on civilians stands at 70, Kochavi said.

Iran and Hezbollah's efforts to stabilize the country are also on the rise, according to the intelligence chief. Hundreds of fighters from a special Hezbollah unit are on Syrian soil today. Some have lost their lives in battles with the rebels. Those who perished have been buried in secret so that their identities would not become public, Kochavi told the conference.

Aside from these operatives, a Syrian "people's army" has been active in the country for the past six months. The group comprises some 50 thousand people, operates alongside the Syrian military, and is trained by Hezbollah operatives with Iranian funding.

On Sunday, the Guardian reported that Israel plans to ask visiting United States President Barack Obama to order an air strike on Syria in the event that Syrian missiles are transferred from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The report was based on information obtained by an anonymous Israeli source.

The report in the Guardian stated that if the U.S. was unwilling to carry out the attack on its own Israel asks that it provide support for an Israeli attack to thwart the transfer of missiles.

"Maybe it would be better if Israel doesn't do it, but who is going to deal with it?" The Guardian quoted an unnamed Israeli official. "These missiles are not just a problem for Israel."

According to the Guardian the United States was unlikely to agree to an air strike on Syria unless chemical weapons were involved. Despite this Israel plans to lobby the U.S. to support more preemptive strikes even at the price of igniting a conflict with Hezbollah.

A Syrian rebel crosses a street while trying to dodge sniper fire in the old city of Aleppo in northern Syria on March 11, 2013.Credit: AFP
A Syrian rebel pointing his weapon as others take position in the Al-Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs, March 6, 2013. Credit: Reuters

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