Rebels set sights on Damascus airport
Insurgents clash with troops, aiming to cut off supplies to government.
BEIRUT — Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad set their sights Friday on the capital’s international airport in a bid to cut off the regime’s supplies, clashing with government troops nearby and again forcing the closure of the airport road.
A fighter who is part of the push against Damascus International Airport declared it a legitimate target, claiming the regime stationed troops and elite forces there as well as military planes to transport ammunition.
Losing control of the airport would be a major blow to the regime, which has recently lost two air bases near the capital.
It was unclear just how close to the airport, a few miles south of the capital, the battles reached. Fighting has intensified in the past week in southern districts of the Syrian capital and its suburbs.
“The rebels have made major military gains, and have been fighting closer to the regime’s nerve center, which is the airport, for days, systematically chipping away at the political and military power off the Assad regime,” said Fawaz Gerges, head of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.
The clashes around Damascus, a city of 1.7 million, have already forced suspension of commercial flights this past week, although airport officials insist the facility remains open and func- plying the Assad regime with weapons through the airport.
Tehran has not given details of its direct military aid to Assad’s regime but has acknowledged that Revolutionary Guard envoys have been advisers in the past.
Moscow has rejected Western sanctions against Assad’s regime and said it would honor earlier signed weapons contracts with Syria for the delivery of anti-shipping and air defense missiles. The Kremlin insists that the Russian arms sales don’t violate any international agreements.
At talks in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday that the United States and Russia are committed to trying again to get Assad’s regime and the rebel opposition to talk about a political transition, set- ting aside a year and a half of U.S.-Russian disagreements that have paralyzed the international community.
Clinton stressed, however, the U.S. would insist once again that Assad’s departure be a key part of that transition, a position not shared by the Russians.
On Friday, Syrian government forces were firing rockets and mortars at suburbs south of Damascus amid heavy clashes with rebels, according to activists. Most of the fighting was taking place in the towns of Aqraba and Beit Saham near the airport.
An airport official said the highway leading to the facility was closed Friday because of the fighting. The official said, however, that the airport was functioning as normal and that people were reaching it through side roads.
A rebel fighter fires at Syrian troops in Damascus on Friday. Fighting around the Syrian capital and airport has intensified in recent days.