Rebels attack main airport at Damascus
The conflict in Syria has intensified with rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad carrying the battle from the provinces to the edge of the capital, Damascus.
They declared the city’s international airport a battle zone yesterday, and have begun incursions around the fringes of the city.
Diplomatic efforts have ground to a halt with both Moscow and Washington downplaying any chance of a push to end the conflict.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton acknowledged the situation remained difficult.
“I don’t think anyone believes that there was some great breakthrough,” she said in Dublin on Thursday after discussions with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi on the margins of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe meeting .
“No one should have any illusions about how hard this remains. But all of us, with any influence, need to be engaged with Brahimi for a concerted, sincere push,” Mrs Clinton said.
Mr Lavrov said the sides had agreed to send officials to another meeting with Mr Brahimi, but also sounded a sceptical note. “I would not make optimistic predictions . . . It remains to be seen what will come out of this,” he added, noting that Mr Brahimi knew the chance of success was “far from 100 per cent”.
Washington and its Nato allies want to see Dr Assad removed from power. Moscow has blocked action against him at the UN Security Council, and while outsiders repeatedly point to signs of Russia losing patience with him, its stance has not changed.
The past week has brought a war previously fought mainly in the provinces and other cities to the threshold of the capital. Western officials have begun speaking about faster change on the ground in a 20-month-old conflict that has killed 40,000 people.
Cutting access to the airport 20km (12 miles) from the city centre would be a symbolic blow. The rebels acknowledge the airport itself is still in army hands, but say they are blockading it from most sides.
“The rebel brigades who have been putting the airport under siege decided yesterday that the airport is a military zone,” said Nabil al-Amir, a spokesman for the rebels’ Damascus Military Council. “Civilians who approach it now do so at their own risk.”
Fighters had “waited two weeks for the airport to be emptied of most civilians and airlines” before declaring it a target, he added.
He did not say what they would do if aircraft tried to land. Foreign airlines have suspended all flights to Damascus since fighting approached the airport in the past week, but some Syrian Air flights have used the airport in recent days.
Syria says the army is driving rebels back from positions in the suburbs and outskirts of Damascus where they have tried to concentrate their offensive. Accounts of rebels and the government are impossible to verify on the ground.
Although western opponents of Dr Assad believe events are tipping against him, they acknowledge that the war is still far from over.
Rami Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said: “I think it’s unrealistic to expect that the battle is in its last stages right now. The big advances are only in the media. But the situation is certainly not good, for anyone.” – (Reuters)