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.