Syrian rebels seize borders in latest blow for Assad
Border with Iraq and key Turkish frontier posts now in rebel hands, but China and Russia block progress at UN
PRESIDENT Bashar al-Assad's grip on Syria appeared to slip further last night after rebel forces took control of the border with Iraq and two key crossings into Turkey.
With the battle for Damascus intensifying in the wake of the bomb on Wednesday that killed three key regime figures, the Free Syrian Army struck another major blow by storming strategic border outposts.
The raids, designed in part to secure a safe path for potential government defections, gave the rebels control of the 376-mile border with Iraq in the east of Syria, according to Baghdad's deputy interior minister. It will now be easier for the rebels to funnel arms from its international allies to its soldiers.
At the northern border with Turkey, two further posts were seized, including Bab al-Hawa, which the rebels had made several attempts to capture over the last ten days.
Meanwhile, President Assad has quashed rumours that he was injured in the bomb, or that he had fled Damascus, by appearing in TV footage of a swearing in ceremony for the new defence minister.
But his 12-year rule over Syria has never looked more unstable, with the prospect of more defections to the rebels.
"We have been seeing a constant level of defections from the Syrian military over the past months and this has accelerated over the past couple of days," a Western security source told The Daily Telegraph. The source said this week's events had "knocked the morale of the army", with some of the government's military units apparently "down to 60 per cent capacity" after Wednesday's bomb.
Despite the fast pace of events on the ground, the diplomatic situation remains unchanged. A UN Security Council resolution that would have threatened the regime with tougher sanctions if they refused to move troops and heavy weapons away from populated areas was yesterday vetoed by China and Russia.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was "appalled" by the veto and accused the two countries of "turning their back on the Syrian people in their darkest hour". The US also expressed outrage with a spokesman for Barack Obama saying it was "a mistake to prop up that regime as it comes to an end".
Negotiations have now turned to the possibility of extending the mandate of UN monitors in Syria, which expires today. Britain is proposing to extend the mission, which comprises almost 300 UN inspectors on the ground in Syria, for a "final 30 days".