By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Syrian rebels battled government forces along the Turkish border on Tuesday in an attempt to seize a border crossing into its northern neighbour, which has backed the 18-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Iran's foreign minister proposed a new regional monitoring mission to try to stem the bloodshed in Syria and will have talks with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Wednesday, state media said. Previous monitoring initiatives collapsed.
A revolt that began with street protests 18 months ago that Assad tried to crush militarily has escalated into a civil war in which over 27,000 people have died. Daily death tolls now approach 200 and the last month was the bloodiest yet.
Fighting raged between Syrian troops and rebels close to the Tel Abyad border gate and stray bullets hit some houses in the town of Akcakale on the Turkish side, a Turkish official said.
He said the rebels were trying to gain control of Tel Abyad, which was a major crossing for Turkish-Syrian commerce in peacetime, and which rebels were rumoured to have used for weapons smuggling in the past year.
It appeared to be the first attempt by insurgents to assert control over a border area in the al-Raqqa province, most of which has remained solidly pro-Assad.
Residents say only one town, near the border, has housed rebels in the province. The town held an anti-Assad protest on Tuesday, prompting government shelling and then triggered heavy fighting.
Parts of Syria's frontiers with Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq have become porous as the conflict spread. Tens of thousands of refugees have poured into Turkey and Jordan to escape shelling by pro-Assad forces in pursuit of rebels.
Shell fire has occasionally crashed over the borders, and the fighting has sometimes come so close that the armies of neighbouring states have gone on high alert.
Elsewhere, Syria's second and third cities, Aleppo and Homs, have been shattered by fighting. With the army relying on fighter jets and helicopter gunships and the rebels on makeshift bombs, neighbourhoods in both cities have been levelled.
Damascus, once seen as an impregnable Assad stronghold, has also suffered near daily shelling and clashes on its outskirts.
At least five fighters and four soldiers died in the latest clashes on the southern outskirts, the Syrian Observatory or Human Rights said. Security forces have been trying to stamp out a rebel foothold in Damascus's southern and eastern suburbs.
Heavy army shelling battered rebellious towns in the southern Deraa region, fount of the uprising, and Idlib, in the north near the Turkish border. More than 60 people were killed nationwide before evening on Tuesday, the Observatory said.
IRAN PROPOSES NEW MONITORING MISSION
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi pitched his proposal for an observer force when a regional "contact group" met in Cairo on Monday, Iran's state news agency said. He said observers should come from group members Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The new grouping is an awkward combination of supporters and opponents of the anti-Assad uprising that now resembles civil war. Iran has stuck by Assad while Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey have demanded the president step down.
"Salehi suggested the sending of observers from the four countries to monitor the cessation of violence, the conducting of dialogue, emphasising the need for a sense of integration and national unity and Syrian territory," IRNA news agency reported.
Given mutual mistrust within the Middle East quartet, it was unclear whether Salehi's proposal had much prospect of success.
Two monitoring missions in Syria have already collapsed. The first, a regional Arab League group of observers, left in protest at a continued escalation of violence with little sign of political reform pledged by Assad. A United Nations mission pulled out most of its observers for similar reasons.
Violence has intensified and spread across this large, pivotal Arab country and more than 200,000 refugees have flooded into neighbouring states.
Iraq, which in August closed its border crossings, reopened its borders on Tuesday to allow in 100 Syrian refugees per day. But Iraq will refuse entry to young men, officials said, citing security reasons, as many young men are believed to be rebels.
Some criticised the move. "This is an unjust decision toward Syrian families. Some Syrian families reject leaving their young sons behind," said one local Iraqi official who asked not to be named.
REGIONAL RIVALRIES POSE OBSTACLE
Western officials and diplomats are sceptical that the new Middle East contact group that convened in Cairo could reach any deal to draw down the spiralling violence in Syria.
The four countries have differences with sectarian and strategic dimensions that seem insurmountable.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey are actively supporting Syrian rebels and are believed to be training them as well. Other Sunni Muslim countries in the region are also throwing their weight behind the mostly Sunni-led uprising in Syria.
Shi'ite Muslim power Iran has supported Assad, whose Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, has dominated the country for decades. Tehran has acknowledged having members of its security forces there, but only in an advisory role. Rebels say that Iranian forces are helping Assad militarily.
Underlining the inherent tensions, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister stayed away from the Cairo meeting of the contact group on Monday. Egyptian officials did not say why no one else came in his place.
International powers seem to be equally deadlocked along old Cold War lines, with Western powers backing the Syrian opposition, and Russia and China blocking any U.N.-mandated intervention aimed at dislodging Assad.
Iranian state media said that Salehi, who like Moscow and Beijing has called for an internal resolution without foreign interference, is to meet Assad in Damascus on Wednesday and propose ways to resolve the Syrian crisis.
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Despite major defections and a July 18. explosion in Damascus that killed four top generals, including President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law, the regime's inner circle is still powerful and united against the opposition. Assad's inner circle includes his younger brother, Maher, who commands the forces in charge of protecting the capital. It also includes the heads of the four intelligence agencies playing a major role in the crackdown. Although regime forces lost parts of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, government troops still control most cities, while the opposition dominates large parts of the countryside. <em>Caption: This June 13, 2000, file photo shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, his brother Maher, center, and brother-in-law Major General Assef Shawkat, left. (AP Photo, File)</em>
Free Syrian Army
The main rebel fighting force for more than a year, the Free Syrian Army includes lightly-armed volunteer militiamen and defectors from Assad's military. Its overall strength and structure is unclear, but tens of thousands are believed be loyal to the group. The rebels have control over some northern areas, allowing movement of fighters and supplies from Turkey and Lebanon. Anti-Assad forces have failed to maintain any strategic footholds in big cities, being driven back from key neighborhoods in Homs earlier this year and now apparently losing ground in the largest urban center, Aleppo. The battles also suggest only weak direction from central commanders - including Turkey-based Free Syrian Army leader Riad al-Asaad. <em>Caption: In this citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, Free Syrian Army soldiers pose for a photograph, in Sarmada, Idlib province, northern Syria. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)</em>
Syrian National Council
Based in Istanbul, the SNC has emerged as the main political opposition to Assad and has pushed for international recognition as the legitimate representative of the uprising, despite rifts with other Syrian factions. The group also has been hit by internal feuds that have led some senior members to quit. The current leader, Abdelbaset Sieda, is a Swedish-based activist for Syria's minority Kurdish community. The SNC has gained support from many countries in the West and Arab world, but it has not galvanized international backing, and critics complain its senior leadership is made up mostly of exiles out of touch with their homeland. <em>Caption: The members of the Syrian National Council and its head Abdulbaset Sieda, center, arrive for a meeting with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, July 23, 2012.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)</em>
The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change
A rival to the SNC, the National Coordination Committee is led by opposition figures inside Syria, many of them former political prisoners. SNC members accuse the group of being far too lenient and willing to engage in dialogue with the regime. In turn, the National Coordination Committee accuses the SNC of being a front for Western powers and willing to open the door to the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Islamist factions. <em>Caption: Member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, Morhaf Mickael speaks during a meeting of Syrian opposition parties in Brussels on Sunday, June 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)</em>
On Assad's side are traditional Shiite allies Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. <em>Caption: In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA)</em>
The regime also has important political cover from Russia and China, which have used their Security Council vetoes to prevent U.N. sanctions on Syria. <em>Caption: In this Jan. 25, 2005 file photo, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a signing ceremony in the Kremlin, Moscow. (AP Photo/Sergei Chirikov)</em>
The rebels have built an array of regional support that includes the wealthy Gulf states - led by Iran rival Saudi Arabia - and neighboring Turkey, which offers key supply routes. The West also backs the rebel forces, but has so far opposed mobilizing international military support similar to the NATO-led airstrikes that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya. <em>Caption: From left, Bahrain's Foreign Minister, Sheik Khalid bin AhmedI bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu and United Arab Emirates' Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan seenduring a group photo during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Foreign ministers meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012 (AP Photo)</em>
Syria has drawn foreign fighters just as other recent conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan. No credible count on them exists, but anecdotal evidence suggests foreigners are coming to fight Assad. Rebel commanders downplay the presence of foreign fighters, saying their cause is a purely Syrian uprising. Mohammed Idilbi, a Syrian activist based in Turkey, says foreign ranks include Libyans, Yemenis, Tunisians and Lebanese. On Saturday, Syria's official SANA news agency claimed four Libyans were among rebels killed in Aleppo. <em>Caption: In this Sept. 18, 2011 file photo, former rebel fighters celebrate as smoke rises from Bani Walid, Libya, at the northern gate of the town. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini, File)</em>
U.S. officials and others worry that Syria could become a new foothold for insurgents inspired by al-Qaida. Assessing the degree of radical Islamic ideology in the civil war is impossible, but at least one group, the al-Nusra Front, has emerged and declared allegiance to the Free Syrian Army. Al-Nusra, or Victory, has claimed responsibility for several high profile attacks, including a double suicide bombing in March that killed 27 people in Damascus and the execution-style killing of a Syrian television presenter who was abducted in July. On Friday, U.S. intelligence officials said al-Qaida has advanced beyond isolated pockets in Syria and now is building a network of well-organized cells that could include several hundred militants. <em>Caption: This photo shows Al-Qaida's new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a still image from a web posting by al-Qaida's media arm, as-Sahab, Wednesday July 27, 2011. Al-Qaida's new leader has lauded protesters in Syria for seeking to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/IntelCenter) </em>