Syrian clashes near Aleppo airport
Government troops fought back rebels near the airport of battle-scarred Aleppo, Syria’s state media said today, in the first official acknowledgement that combat had neared a strategic gateway to the country’s largest city.
As fighting raged in both Aleppo and the Syrian capital, Damascus, the United Nations announced that Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and veteran UN diplomat, would serve as the world body’s new peace envoy, aiming to resume efforts for a diplomatic solution to what has become an intractable civil war.
Mr Brahimi, who previously served as envoy to Iraq and Afghanistan, replaces former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who announced he would leave the post by the end of this month after failing to bring about a ceasefire despite months of negotiations.
The announcement came as UN observers in Syria were beginning to pack up in preparation to close down their mission.
Deployment of the observers was one of the only steps taken under Mr Annan’s peace plan. The team was intended to watch over a ceasefire which never took hold, and so was left trying to chronicle some of the more egregious instances of bloodshed.
Both sides have “chosen the path of war”, said the UN’s assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, Edmond Mulet. The UN plans to keep a small liaison office to support any future peace efforts.
The 17-month-old conflict between president Bashar Assad’s regime and rebels trying to bring him down has left some 20,000 people dead, according to estimates by anti-Assad activists.
The escalating fight has in the past two months turned to battles in the country’s two main cities, Damascus and Aleppo — once firm bastions of Dr Assad’s rule. Rebels have managed to keep fighting in both cities despite facing overwhelming regime firepower.
In Damascus, activists reported heavy shelling and clashes in many areas today, including western districts believed to have rebel pockets. Damascus-based activist Moaz al-Shami described the shelling as “non-stop” and said gunners were firing from the Qassioun mountains overlooking the city.
Regime forces have been fighting for nearly a month to crush the rebels’ footholds in Aleppo, in the north of the country. Rebels have been driven from some areas, but the report of clashes near the airport suggests the battles could be shifting to new fronts.
Syria’s official Sana news agency said “armed terrorist groups” — the regime’s phrase for rebels — had been pushed out from areas on both sides of the airport, which is about 15km south-east of Aleppo’s historical centre.
The report did not make clear whether the fighting was closer to the international airport or the adjacent military airfield, a base for carrying out air strikes on rebel sites in the north.
Aleppo has major symbolic and strategic value. It is the commercial hub of northern Syria and close to rebel-held territory and critical supply corridors to the Turkish border.
Rebels have sought control of the ancient centre, dominated by a medieval castle which is part of the city’s Unesco World Heritage Site.
That would deal an embarrassing blow to the regime’s claim that its overwhelming firepower can halt opposition advances.
“Those who think that the Syrian Arab army will be defeated are dreaming,” said Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in a state TV interview late yesterday.