Syria Uprising: On First Anniversary, Army Controls Idlib, Rallies Planned

By Crispian Balmer and Dominic Evans

BEIRUT, March 15 (Reuters) - Syria marked the first anniversary on Thursday of an increasingly bloody uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, with recent army gains unlikely to quell the revolt and no diplomatic solution in sight.

Official media announced government forces had cleared "armed terrorists" from the northwestern city of Idlib and said supporters of Assad would hold rallies across Syria.


But opponents of Assad's regime show no sign of backing down and there were reports of continuing clashes in areas around Idlib, as well as close to the central city of Homs, which has been pummeled by the army in recent weeks.

Amid dire warnings that Syria is sinking into a protracted civil war, the U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has demanded further clarification from Damascus over its response to proposals aimed at ending the violence.

He is due to report back to a divided U.N. Security Council on Friday. Russia and China remain behind a defiant Assad while exasperated Western powers push for regime change.

The United Nations estimates that more than 8,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the fighting. Some 230,000 Syrians have been displaced from their homes, including 30,000 who have fled abroad, raising the prospect of a refugee crisis.

Turkey said 1,000 refugees had crossed into Turkey from Syria in the last 24 hours, bringing the total of registered Syrian refugees in Turkey to some 14,000.

An official said: "We expect this to continue as long as the operation goes on in Idlib."

Britain's Guardian newspaper has published what it believes to be genuine emails sent and received by Assad and his wife between June and February.

The emails appeared to show that Assad had taken advice from Iran on countering the uprising, that he had branded some of his promised reforms as "rubbish", and that his wife had placed orders for expensive overseas goods as the violence escalated.


As the anniversary of the uprising approached, the Syrian army appeared to step up its offensive against rebel strongholds, regaining Homs and sending tanks into the southern town of Deraa, the cradle of the rebellion.

They also pounded Idlib with artillery in recent days before sending in troops to regain control of the city, which had been a bastion for the Free Syria Army -- a disparate collection of lightly armed militants led by deserters.

"Security and peace of mind returned to the city of Idlib after authorities cleared its neighbourhoods of armed terrorist groups which had terrorised citizens," the state news agency Sana reported on Thursday.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said pockets of resistance remained in Idlib. "The army has control of the main streets but not the alleyways and side roads," said Rami Abdulrahman, who relies on a network of Syrian residents for his information.

Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities deny access to rights groups and journalists.

Syrian state television said there would be a "Global March for Syria" to honour those killed by the rebels and video footage showed crowds gathering in a central Damascus square.

The government has blamed foreign powers and "terrorists" for the chaos and say 2,000 soldiers have died in the conflict.

Assad confidently predicted at the start of 2011 that Syria was immune from the "Arab Spring", in which the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were swept from power.

But on March 15, a few dozen protesters braved the streets of Damascus to call for more freedom. Days later riots broke out in Deraa, on the border with Jordan, to protest against the torture of local boys caught writing anti-government graffiti.

A contact in Deraa told Reuters most schools and shops in the main commercial area were closed on Thursday, with hundreds of security forces patrolling the streets. State employees were being ordered to stage a pro-Assad rally, residents said.

Despite a crumbling economy and tightening sanctions, Assad still seems to have significant support within Syria, notably in its two top cities -- Damascus and Aleppo. Its main ally Iran also remains supportive.

But it faces increasing international isolation. On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia and Italy announced they were withdrawing their ambassadors from Damascus.

Diplomats say the fighting is developing along sectarian lines. The Sunni Muslim majority, who make up 75 percent of the population of 23 million, is at odds with Assad's Alawite sect, which represents 10 percent but controls the levers of power.

Other minorities, such as the Christians, are sticking with Assad for fear of reprisals should he be ousted, analysts say.

"The strategy of the regime is civil war, after it failed to silence the people. So it's trying to protect its future by moving toward dividing the country," said Najati Tayyara, a veteran dissident and Sunni liberal who has fled to Jordan.

Former U.N. chief Annan presented Assad with a five-point plan to end the fighting at weekend talks.

Syria has said it has given a "positive" response to the approach. However, a senior Western diplomat in the region told Reuters that Damascus had effectively rejected Annan's ideas. (Writing by Crispian Balmer, additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Editing by Robert Woodward)