Rebels circle Damascus airport; Russia, US downbeat

December 08, 2012 - 1:45:23 am

BEIRUT: Rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Al Assad declared Damascus International Airport a battle zone yesterday, while Moscow and Washington both sounded downbeat 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”.

Rebels, meeting in Turkey in the presence of Western security officials, elected a 30-member unified military command, giving prominent posts to Islamists and excluding some senior officers who defected from Assad’s army. 

The past week has brought a war previously fought mainly in the provinces and other cities to the threshold of the capital.

The Dutch yeserday said they would send two Patriot batteries with up to 360 personnel to Turkey. 

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.

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.”