By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
ANTAKYA, Turkey, June 29 (Reuters) - Helicopter gunships bombarded a strategic town in northern Syria overnight and tanks moved close to the commercial hub of Aleppo, rebels said, but kept well clear of new Turkish air defences installed to curb Syrian action near its frontiers.
Turkish commanders inspected the missile batteries deployed on the border region on Thursday following Syria's shooting down of a Turkish warplane a week ago, which has sharply raised tensions between the two nations.
The Turkish deployments, a graphic warning to President Bashar al-Assad, coincide with rising violence across Syria and increasingly urgent international efforts to forge a peace deal as the nation slips into full-blown war.
As the Turkish-Syrian dimension ratcheted up further pressure, peace envoy Kofi Annan said on Friday he was "optimistic" that crisis talks in Geneva on Saturday would produce an acceptable outcome, which has so far proved elusive.
Regional analysts said that while neither Turkey nor its NATO allies appeared to have any appetite to enforce a formal no-fly zone over Syrian territory, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had made it clear Assad would be risking what he called the 'wrath' of Turkey if its aircraft strayed close to its borders.
Recently, there were clashes close to the border between Syrian forces and rebels. Last weekend, Damascus said "terrorists" infiltrating from Turkey were killed and there have been reports of Syrian forces shooting into camps for refugees in Turkey.
The United States, Britain and France have said that Assad is responsible for the violence, which the United Nations estimates has killed at least 10,000 people, and is no longer fit to govern. Russia and China, however, reject what they describe as Western calls for "regime change".
Turkey, sheltering some 34,000 Syrian refugees and providing bases for the rebel Free Syria Army (FSA), is in the forefront of the efforts to bring down Assad.
SYRIAN TANKS MASS
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 190 people, including 125 civilians, were killed on Thursday.
General Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the Higher Military Council, a grouping of senior officers who defected from Assad's forces, said around 170 Syrian tanks had assembled at an infantry school near the village of Musalmieh northeast of the city of Aleppo, just 30 kms (19 miles) from the Turkish border.
"They're either preparing to move to the border to counter the Turkish deployment or attack the rebellious (Syrian) towns and villages in and around the border zone north of Aleppo," Sheikh told Reuters by telephone from the border.
Omar Abdallah, an activist in Idlib coordinating with the Free Syrian Army said: "After taking hits in rural Aleppo and Idlib, the army is re-grouping ... There is speculation that these forces intend to ring Aleppo starting July 1."
Rebel sources in Turkey's Hatay region said Assad's helicopters attacked Saraqeb, a strategic town deep in Idlib province, but kept away from the area directly along the Turkish border in the rural regions of Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
Neither Turkey, which fears a local clash escalating into a regional sectarian conflagration, nor Syria, has any interest in a confrontation on their shared border.
Ankara, which has the second biggest army in NATO, called an emergency NATO meeting after its warplane was shot down.
Turkey has in the past talked about creating a humanitarian corridor on Syrian territory if refugee flows became dangerously unmanageable or the scale of killing in Syria became intolerable. But it had always said this would require international endorsement.
"NATO just doesn't look like it's in the mood," David Hartwell, Middle East analyst, IHS Jane's, said. "What you might get is the Turks forcing a de facto no-fly zone."
Erdogan announced earlier this week that he had issued new rules of engagement to his border troops and said any Syrian military elements approaching Turkish borders and deemed a threat would be treated as a target. But he failed, perhaps deliberately, to specify how close Syrian forces could come to the border before becoming vulnerable.
"The Syrians might accept a very narrow zone along the border. Syria will remain very reluctant to get involved in any conflict with Turkey. They would be up against a very serious military foe," Malcolm Chalmers, research director at Britain's Royal United Services Institute, said.
The world has been accused by Syrian opposition activists of inertia over the bloodshed. Diplomacy has failed to produce agreement between Western powers, backing the opposition, and Russia, which has used its U.N. veto to block Western and Sunni Arab moves to drive Assad from power.
Ahead of Saturday's meeting, Russia proposed changes to Annan's plan for a national unity government in Syria, despite initially supporting it, but the United States, Britain and France rejected the amendments, Western diplomats said.
Russia and the other permanent U.N. Security Council members told Annan this week they supported a transitional cabinet that could include government and opposition members but would "exclude ... those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation," according to Annan's proposal.
Diplomats told Reuters that Annan's idea of excluding certain people was clearly referring to Assad.
Although Russia signaled to Annan this week that his plan was acceptable, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reversed course on Thursday, diplomats said. Diplomats said the Russians demanded that Annan remove from his proposal the language about excluding people from a Syrian national unity government.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Lavrov were due to hold talks on Friday in St. Petersburg that could be decisive in breaking the impasse. The pair are scheduled to attend the Geneva talks on Saturday.
Annan had made preliminary acceptance of his guidelines for a political transition for Syria a condition for organising Saturday's meeting in Geneva. The meeting is to include the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. Iran and Saudi Arabia were not invited.
"I think we are going to have a good meeting tomorrow(Saturday). I am optimistic," Annan told Reuters Television.
Assad on Thursday dismissed the notion of any outside solution to the 16-month-old uprising against his rule.
"We will not accept any non-Syrian, non-national model, whether it comes from big countries or friendly countries. No one knows how to solve Syria's problems as well as we do." (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Erika Solomon and Mariam Karounty in Beirut, writing by Ralph Boulton and Peter Millership; editing by Janet McBride)
BEFORE YOU GO
07/13/2012 1:00 PM EDT
Car Bomb In Damascus
Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
07/13/2012 12:00 PM EDT
Susan Rice Condemns Killings
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
@ AmbassadorRice :
#Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.
07/13/2012 11:58 AM EDT
Russia Condemns Massacre
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/13/2012 11:55 AM EDT
Footage Of Massacre Aftermath (WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES)
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
07/13/2012 9:34 AM EDT
How Do Syrian Fighters Get Their Arms?
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say.
Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
07/13/2012 9:10 AM EDT
Activists Report New Massacre (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
07/12/2012 6:50 PM EDT
Hama Revolutionary Council: More Than 220 Killed
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/12/2012 6:17 PM EDT
Syrian State TV: 'Large Numbers Of Terrorists Killed'
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
@ AlexanderPageSY :
Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria
07/12/2012 5:36 PM EDT
Update: Death Toll In New Massacre Reportedly More Than 200
@ Reuters :
UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS