Egypt's Sisi backs Syria's Assad as opposition talks planned for Paris

#SyriaWar

In Aleppo, around 100 families forced to turn back amid gunfire after trying to flee to rebel-held east Aleppo overnight

An injured Syrian man walks with his son past a destroyed building (AFP)
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Thursday 24 November 2016 21:04 UTC
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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has publicly affirmed his support for the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Speaking on the Portuguese TV network RTP, Sisi said it was necessary to support "national armies" in the Middle East.

"The priority is that we support the national armies to impose control over the territory, deal with the extremists, and impose the necessary stability in Libya, Syria and Iraq," he said.

"When you refer to the National Army in Syria, do you mean the Syrian army?" the presenter asked, to which Sisi replied: "Yes."

The admission of support for Assad's forces is likely to further raise already heightened tensions between Egypt and its allies in the US and Saudi Arabia.

Regional support for the Assad government has been mixed, with the Gulf states and Turkey generally opposed to his war against assorted rebels. Meanwhile Iraq, Iran and, to an extent, Algeria, are supportive.

Sisi restored diplomatic relations with Syria following the 2013 military coup which overthrew the government of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi. Under Morsi, relations with Riyadh had been severed due to the Brotherhood's support for the Saudi opposition.

Egypt also angered its allies last month when it backed a Russian-backed motion calling for a ceasefire in Syria but ignoring Russia's bombing of besieged eastern Aleppo.

Meanwhile, countries which back the "moderate" Syrian opposition, including the United States and Gulf nations, will meet in Paris in early December, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Wednesday.

Ayrault said the international community "must stop averting its gaze" from the "terrible reality" of what was happening in Syria.

'Human shields'

In Syria itself, around 100 families tried to flee rebel-held east Aleppo overnight as the Syrian army advanced, but were forced to turn back when gunfire erupted, a monitor said on Wednesday.

The government is waging a ferocious assault to recapture the east of the city, and accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving and using them as "human shields." The rebels deny the accusations and dismissed claims they were preventing civilian evacuations as "rumours."

"On Tuesday night, around 100 families gathered near a passage from the (rebel-held) Bustan al-Basha district to cross to Sheikh Maqsud," said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"But when the civilians tried to cross to the other side, gunfire broke out," he told AFP, without elaborating.

Sheikh Maqsud is a northern neighbourhood controlled by Kurdish forces, allied with neither the government nor the rebels. It is situated between the government-held west and rebel-held east.

The incident comes as pro-Assad forces advance into the east in their latest bid to recapture neighbourhoods held by the rebels since 2012.

For more than a week, government forces have pounded them with air strikes, barrel bombs and artillery fire, killing more than 140 civilians, according to the Observatory.

As they advanced on Tuesday, the army accused the rebels of using the more than 250,000 civilians trapped in the east as "human shields."

"Permit those citizens who want to do so to leave," the army said. "Stop using them as hostages and human shields, clear the mines from the crossings identified by the state."

'The regime is spreading rumours to try to undermine the resolve of the rebels and those who support them in Aleppo'

- Yasser al-Youssef, Nureddin al-Zinki

But rebel groups deny they are preventing civilians from leaving and accuse the regime of spreading "rumours."

"This has nothing to do with reality," said Yasser al-Youssef, from the political office of rebel group Nureddin al-Zinki. "The regime is spreading rumours to try to undermine the resolve of the rebels and those who support them in Aleppo," he told AFP.

The Syrian army, backed by allied forces, launched a renewed attack on east Aleppo on November 15 and on Wednesday was in control of half of the strategically important Masaken Hanano district.

Controlling the district will give the army line-of-fire control over a large swathe of territory, and allow the regime to cut the rebel east in two, separating northern neighbourhoods from southern ones.

Chemical weapons investigation

A global watchdog probing chemical arms attacks in Aleppo on Tuesday took Russia up on an offer to provide some possible evidence saying it "may be of use" to their investigation.

The Russian military said on November 11 that it had evidence of the use of chemical weapons by rebels in Syria's besieged eastern city of Aleppo.

The military said in a statement that its experts "have found unexploded artillery ammunition belonging to terrorists which contains toxic substances."

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Tuesday it had "recently received an offer from Russian authorities to provide some samples and other material in relation to an incident of alleged use of chemicals as weapons in Aleppo."

"These samples and other material may be of use in the ongoing work of the OPCW fact-finding mission," the organisation said in a statement.

It said it had "proposed" to the Russian foreign ministry that given the ongoing conflict in Aleppo, it would be better "to receive such material in Damascus or The Hague."

"At present, the OPCW is awaiting a response," the statement added.

The OPCW, based in The Hague, has launched a fact-finding mission to investigate chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The mission is feeding its reports to a joint UN-OPCW panel, whose mandate has just been extended for a year.

Ahmet Uzumcu, the OPCW chief, told AFP last week that his organisation had received more than 20 reports of chemical attacks since 1 August.