Damascus airport battle zone: rebels Chem-arms use would be ‘outrageous crime’: Ban

BEIRUT, Dec 7, (Agencies): Rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared Damascus International Airport a battle zone on Friday, while Moscow and Washington both sounded glum about the prospects of a diplomatic push to end the conflict.
Fighting around the capital city has intensified over the past week, and Western officials have begun speaking about faster change on the ground in a 20-month-old conflict that has killed 40,000 people.
But Russia and the United States, the superpowers that have backed the opposing sides in the conflict, both played down the chance of a diplomatic breakthrough after talks aimed at resolving their differences.
“I don’t think anyone believes that there was some great breakthrough,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of a meeting with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.
“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.”
Lavrov said the sides had agreed to send officials to another meeting with 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 Brahimi knows the chance of success is “far from 100 percent”.
Washington and its NATO allies want to see 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.
Cutting access to the airport 20 kms (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,” he said. 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, although 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 Assad believe events are tipping against him, they also acknowledge that the war is still far from over.
“It’s very clear to me that the regime’s forces are being ground down,” US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was quoted as saying by CNN.
“That said, the regime’s protection units continue to maintain some cohesion, and they still have some fight left in them, even though they are losing. I expect there will be substantial fighting in the days ahead,” said Ford, who was withdrawn from the country in October last year.
Rami Abdelrahman, of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has tracked the fighting since it began in March 2011, 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.”
NATO decided this week to send US, German and Dutch batteries of air-defence missiles to the Turkish border, putting hundreds of American and European NATO troops close to the frontier with Syria for the first time in the crisis.
Russia’s ambassador to NATO said the move risked dragging the alliance into the conflict.
“This is not a threat to us, but this is an indication that NATO is moving toward engagement, and that’s it,” Alexander Grushko said. “We see a threat of further involvement of NATO in the Syrian situation as a result of some provocation or some incidents on the border, if they take place.”
The Dutch on Friday say they would send two Patriot batteries with up to 360 personnel. Germany approved its mission on Thursday.
The United States and its NATO allies have issued coordinated warnings in recent days to Assad not to use chemical weapons, prompting Syria to accuse Western countries of conjuring the threat to justify a military intervention.
“I think there is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned that as the opposition advances, in particular on Damascus, that the regime might well consider the use of chemical weapons,” US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday.
Syria has not signed an international chemical weapons treaty banning poison gas, but has repeatedly said that it would never use such weapons on its own people.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said: “We have no confirmed reports on this matter. However, if it is the case, then it will be an outrageous crime in the name of humanity.”
The United States is in no hurry to get into another Middle Eastern war. Nevertheless, if it appeared that chemical weapons were about to be used by Assad, or seized by an extreme Islamist faction among the rebels, it could be driven to take action.
But some analysts say there is no long-range plan.
“Western powers have been too focused just on their endgame, which was to see Assad go,” says Hayat Alvi, associate professor of national security studies at the US Naval War College. “There is no substantive plan about any other contingencies, risks, and post-Assad scenarios.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that the United States and Russia are committed to trying again to get President Bashar Assad’s regime and the rebel opposition to talk about a political transition in Syria, setting aside a year and a half of US-Russian disagreements that have paralyzed the international community.
Clinton stressed, however, that the US would insist once again that Assad’s departure be a key part of that transition, a position not shared by the Russians.
In her first comments on the surprise three-way diplomatic talks held Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Clinton said Washington and Moscow agreed to support a new mediation effort Brahimi would lead. She called Thursday’s discussions “constructive,” while adding that much work remained and suggesting that neither side shifted its fundamental position.
“We reviewed the very dangerous developments inside Syria,” Clinton said in Northern Ireland. “And both Minister Lavrov and I committed to supporting a new push by Brahimi and his team to work with all the stakeholders in Syria to begin a political transition.”
The US State Department expressed concern Thursday over the influence of fundamentalist groups in Syria, including the Al-Nusra Front, which is said to have ties to al-Qaeda.
As opposition fighters in Syria struggle to topple the regime of Al-Assad, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters that groups like Al-Nusra are increasingly “a matter of concern” to Washington.
The State Department is planning to blacklist Al-Nusra within the next week, designating it as a foreign terrorist organization, CNN reported Wednesday. Toner declined to confirm the report.
“Although they make up a relatively small part of the opposition to Assad, we know that these groups, al-Qaeda and their ilk, try to take advantage of exactly the kind of environment that Assad has fostered over the last year or so,” Toner said.

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