BEIRUT (AP) — Following rebel gains, the leader of the Syrian opposition made his first visit Sunday to areas near the embattled northern city of Aleppo as fighters trying to oust President Bashar Assad captured a police academy and a border crossing along the frontier with Iraq.
Assad, meanwhile, lashed out at the West for helping his opponents in the civil war, delivering a blistering rebuke to Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement that the U.S. will for the first time provide medical supplies and other non-lethal aid directly to the rebels in addition to $60 million in assistance to Syria's political opposition.
Aleppo, the nation's largest city, has been a major front in the nearly 2-year-old uprising. Government forces and rebels have been locked in a stalemate there since July. Mouaz al-Khatib met Sunday with Syrians in the two rebel-held Aleppo suburbs of Manbah and Jarablus, a statement said. The stated goal of his trip — his first since being named the leader of the Syrian National Coalition late last year — was to inspect living conditions.
But his foray to the edge of Aleppo also could be an attempt to boost his group's standing among civilians and fighters on the ground, many of whom see the Western-backed political leadership in exile as irrelevant and out of touch.
The areas along Syria's northern border with Turkey are largely ruled by rival brigades and fighter units that operate autonomously and have no links to the political opposition. Al-Khatib's visit came as rebels captured a police academy west of Aleppo after an eight-day battle that killed more than 200 Syrian soldiers and rebels, activists said. Anti-Assad fighters also stormed a central prison in the northern city of Raqqa and captured the Rabiya border crossing in the east along the border with Iraq, activists said. Iraqi officials said the crossing in northern Ninevah province has been closed.
The territorial gains are a significant blow to Assad, although his forces have regained control of several villages and towns along a key highway near Aleppo International Airport — an achievement that could signal the start of a decisive battle for Syria's commercial capital.
Also Sunday, the government troops launched an offensive in central Syria, sweeping through Latakia and Hama provinces, trying to dislodge rebels from towns and villages. The army also shelled opposition strongholds around Damascus, pounding areas such as Harasta, Daraya, Douma and Zbadani with artillery and airstrikes in what opposition groups said were the regime's "desperate attempts" to reverse the rebel advances.
The rebels have trying to storm the capital for weeks, pushing ever closer to Assad's seat of power. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition group, said the rebels seized the police academy in Khan al-Asal after entering the sprawling government complex with captured tanks.
At least 120 regime soldiers and 80 rebels were killed in the fighting, according to Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman. He said the rebels control all buildings inside the complex, which was abandoned by Assad's forces early Sunday.
The Syrian conflict started in March 2011 as a popular uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule, then turned into a full-blown civil war after the rebels took up arms to fight a government crackdown on dissent. The United Nations estimates that 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.
Assad maintains his troops are fighting "terrorists" and Islamic extremists seeking to destroy Syria, and he accuses the West and its Gulf Arab allies of supporting them in achieving their goal. In an interview with the Sunday Times, Assad criticized the U.S. and Britain for sending financial and other non-lethal aid to the opposition. He set harsh terms for talking to his opponents, dialing back earlier hints of flexibility about talks.
He told the British newspaper that he is ready for dialogue with armed rebels and militants, but only if they surrender their weapons. Recently, the Syrian government offered to participate in talks, but didn't address the question of laying down arms.
"We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms. We are not going to deal with terrorists who are determined to carry weapons to terrorize people, to kill civilians, to attack public places or private enterprise and to destroy the country," Assad said in the interview, conducted in Damascus. "We fight terrorism."
The opposition, including fighters on the ground and the Syrian National Coalition umbrella group, has rejected talks with Damascus until Assad steps down, a demand he has repeatedly rejected. Kerry met Thursday with Syrian opposition leaders in Italy, where he said the U.S. will for the first time provide the non-lethal aid directly to the fighters in addition to $60 million in assistance to the political opposition.
Assad said the "intelligence, communication and financial assistance being provided is very lethal." He bitterly criticized British Prime Minister David Cameron's push for peace talks as "naive, confused, unrealistic" while London tries to end the European Union's arms embargo so that the rebels can be supplied with weapons.
"We do not expect an arsonist to be a firefighter," he said, dismissing any notion that Britain could help end the civil war. "How can we ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarize the problem?"
Britain's aim to send aid to moderate opposition groups was misguided, Assad said, adding that such groups do not exist in Syria. Arming the rebels would have grave consequences, he warned. "We all know that we are now fighting al-Qaida, or Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaida, and other groups of people indoctrinated with extreme ideologies," he told the newspaper.
Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have been the best organized and most effective force on the opposition side, leading successful rebel assaults on military installation around the country. Al-Nusra has also claimed responsibility for car bombs and suicide attacks on government institutions in Damascus. The U.S. has designated the group a terrorist organization, saying its fighters have ties with al-Qaida.
British Foreign Secretary Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad's comments were proof that the Syrian leader was out of touch with reality. "I think this will go down as one of the most delusional interviews that any national leader has given in modern times," Hague said in an interview Sunday with the BBC.
Associated Press writers Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.