Syrian rebels take airbase in slow progress toward Damascus

AMMAN Sun Nov 25, 2012 5:09pm EST

1 of 4. Members of the Free Syrian Army gather as gunfire is heard between them and the armed Kurds of The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the northern Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, November 25, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

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AMMAN (Reuters) - 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 al-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 verified.

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 south.

"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 periphery.

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 recognized by France and Britain as the sole representative of the Syrians.

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 far.

NATO has said the possible deployment of the missiles was purely defensive. The U.S.-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 rule.

Ankara has scrambled fighter jets and returned fire after stray Syrian shells and mortar bombs from heavy fighting along the border landed in its territory.

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 organization 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 rifles.

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.

Footage from Saturday evening showed rebels firing rocket-propelled grenades at the base, and what appeared to be a helicopter engulfed in flames.

Last week 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.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Ece Toksabay in Istanbul; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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Comments (5)
sidevalve56 wrote:
the sad thing is that the rebels only know how to fight and be rebels…if they do end up deposing assad, they won’t know how to rebuild or run a country…I’m sure that the rebels secondary skills aren’t civics or poli-sci. They will have to rely on people with that knowledge, which most likely will be the same people they are trying to oust right now…what a rub.

Nov 25, 2012 9:22am EST  --  Report as abuse
kenradke11 wrote:
Iran can complain all they want. They have no business in what Turkey wants to do along the lines of protecting their border from Madman Assad’s military airpower. Turkey has a right to defend itself and furthermore to set up a no fly zone. Go Rebels Go! Bring the bastard Assad down and bring him down hard!

Nov 25, 2012 6:03pm EST  --  Report as abuse
sidevalve56;

It’s ok, the US has created a ‘government in waiting’ for this eventuality! They used to call it the NTC, but just recently they realized that they were too marred in scandal, illegitimate and too close to terrorist gangs so the US has recently renamed and reorganized this government in waiting in an atempt to throw of scrutiny before the Islamists seize power.

Like Libya, if the leadership in Syria falls they will be helicoptered in and stage a phoney election. The actual fighters will become the new torturers and secret police or will just begin fighting eachother for autonomous territories.

This has already begun between many sects inside Syria and even in Lebanon and Turkey.

Remember, the only goal here was to destroy the country for Israels sake… and further weaken Iran.

There can be no power capable of defending itself against the United States and Israel allowed to flourish in the Middle East.

The US maintains it’s iron grip on the oil rich area by way of invasion, war and supporting dictators – not by making friends…

Nov 25, 2012 10:06pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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