Syrian rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad set their sights on 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 that the regime has stationed troops and elite forces there, as well as military planes that 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 kilometers south of the capital, the battles reached. Fighting has intensified in the past week in the 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 the suspension of commercial flights over the past week, although airport officials insist the facility remains open and was functioning normally on Friday.
Rebels said they were targeting the airport in an effort to cut military supplies to the government.
“This would send a very strong political message to the regime. It will be a moral victory, to say the least,” said the fighter, who gave only his first name, Nour, for security reasons. “The battle to cut off the regime supplies from the airport has started.”
Another rebel, speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said the airport was now considered a “military zone.”
“We urge civilians to stay away,” said the rebel, a member of the Damascus area military command involved in Friday’s fighting.
Iran and Russia are widely believed to be supplying the al-Assad regime with weapons through the airport.
Tehran has not given details of its direct military aid to al-Assad’s regime, but has acknowledged that Revolutionary Guard envoys have been advisers in the past.
Moscow has rejected Western sanctions against al-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 do not violate any international agreements.
At talks in Belfast, Northern Ireland, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Friday that the US and Russia were committed to trying again to get al-Assad’s regime and the rebel opposition to talk about a political transition, setting aside a year-and-a-half of US-Russian disagreements that have paralyzed the international community.
However, Clinton said that the US would insist once again that al-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.