|Free Syrian Army on tank DECEMBER 370.(Photo by: REUTERS)|
Syrian rebels move towards seizing Damascus
Rebels capture helicopter base in latest gain to unseat Assad; marks second military city near Damascus to fall to rebels.
AMMAN - Syrian rebels said on Sunday they had captured a
helicopter base east of Damascus after an overnight assault, their latest gain
in a costly battle to unseat President Bashar Assad that is drawing nearer to
his seat of power.
The Marj al-Sultan base, 15 km (10 miles) from the
capital, is the second military facility on the outskirts of the city reported
to have fallen to Assad's opponents this month.
Activists said rebels had
destroyed two helicopters and taken 15 prisoners.
"We are coming for you
Bashar," a rebel shouted in an internet video of what activists said was Marj
al-Sultan. Restrictions on non-state media meant it could not be
The rebels have been firming their hold on farmland and urban centers to the east and northeast of Damascus while a major battle has been
underway for a week in the suburb of Daraya near the main highway
"We are seeing the starting signs of a rebel siege of Damascus,"
veteran opposition campaigner Fawaz Tello said from Berlin. "Marj al-Sultan is
very near to the Damascus Airport road and to the airport itself. The rebels
appear to be heading toward cutting this as well as the main northern artery to
Aleppo." Assad's core forces, drawn mainly from his minority Alawite sect, an
offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated power in Syria for nearly five
decades, are entrenched in the capital.
They also have devastating air
superiority although they have failed to prevent rebels increasing their
presence on the edge of the capital and in neighborhoods on the
A Western diplomat following the fighting said Assad still had
the upper hand. "The army will allow positions to fall here and there, but it
can still easily muster the strength to drive back the rebels where it sees a
danger," the diplomat said.
"The rebels are very short of international
support and they do not have the supplies to keep up a sustained fight,
especially in Damascus."
Iran condemns Patriot plan
Iran said Turkey's request
to NATO to deploy Patriot defensive missiles near its border with Syria would
add to problems in the region, where Iran is pitted against mostly Sunni Turkey
and Gulf Sunni powers.
Iran's Shi'ite rulers have stepped up support for
Assad while Sunni Arab powers helped forge a new opposition coalition this month
recognised by France and Britain as the sole representative of the
Syria has called the missile request "provocative", seeing it as
a first step toward a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace which the opposition is
seeking to help them hold territory against an enemy with overwhelming firepower
from the air.
Most foreign powers are reluctant to go that
NATO has said the possible deployment of the missiles was purely
defensive. The US-led Western alliance has had some talks on the request but
has yet to take a decision.
Turkey fears security on its border may
crumble as the Syrian army fights harder against the rebels, some of whom have
enjoyed sanctuary in Turkey in their 20-month-old revolt against Assad's
Ankara has scrambled fighter jets and returned fire after stray
Syrian shells and mortar bombs from heavy fighting along the border landed in
More than 120,000 Syrian refugees are sheltering in camps
in southern Turkey and more are expected with winter setting in and millions of
people estimated to be short of food inside Syria.
Abu Mussab, a rebel
operative in the area of Hajar al-Aswad in south Damascus, said the opposition
fighters had given up expecting a no-fly zone. "The bet is now on better
organisation and tactics," he said.
The video said by activists to have
been filmed at the Marj al-Sultan base showed rebel fighters carrying AK-47
An anti-aircraft gun was positioned on top of an empty bunker and
a rebel commander from the Ansar al-Islam, a major Muslim rebel unit, was shown
next to a helicopter.
"With God's help, the Marj al-Sultan airbase in
eastern Ghouta has been liberated," the commander said in the video. Eastern
Ghouta, a mix of agricultural land and built-up urban areas, has been a rebel
stronghold for months.
Damaged mobile radar stations could be seen on
hilltops, with rebels waiving as they walked in the compound.
from Saturday evening showed rebels firing rocket-propelled grenades at the
base, and what appeared to be a helicopter engulfed in flames.
rebels briefly captured an air defense base near the southern Damascus district
of Hajar al-Aswad, seizing weapons and equipment before pulling out to avoid
retaliation from Assad's air force.