Rebels set sights on Da­m­as­cus air­port

In­sur­gents clash with troops, aim­ing to cut off sup­plies to government.

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - By Bar­bara surk

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.

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