(Removes reference to Italy giving diplomatic recognition to
the Syrian opposition. It has recognised the group as
* Heaviest fighting in Damascus for months
* NATO agrees to deploy missile defence on Turkish border
* Britain recognises opposition coalition
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, Nov 20 Syrian government troops backed by
tanks battled to oust rebel forces from an opposition stronghold
in a Damascus suburb on Tuesday in the heaviest fighting in the
capital for months.
In action in the country's north, rebel fighters stormed an
air defence base that President Bashar al-Assad's military had
used to bombard areas near the Turkish border.
On the international front, the Turkish foreign minister
said NATO states had agreed to supply Turkey with a Patriot
missile system to defend against Syrian cross-border shelling.
Although the deployment would be for defensive purposes
only, it nonetheless marked a hardening in the foreign
opposition to Assad.
The rebels also received a diplomatic lift with Britain
officially recognising the opposition Syrian National Coalition,
set up this month to boost their chances of securing foreign aid
and arms, as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
It was the ninth country to do so following France, Turkey
and the Gulf Arab states.
After months of slow progress marked by poor organisation
and supply problems, the rebels have captured several army
positions in outlying regions in the last week, including a
Special Forces base near Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub.
They are also trying to take the 20-month-old revolt to the
heart of Damascus, Assad's seat of power, and have dubbed this
week "March to Damascus Week".
Elite Republican Guard troops backed by tanks attacked the
rebel stronghold of Daraya on the city's southwestern edge and
were met by fierce resistance from rebels, who hung on to their
positions despite days of aerial bombardment, oppostion sources
Twelve people were killed on Monday in Daraya, mostly by
aerial bombing preparing for the ground offensive, activists
said. Thousands of residents had fled to nearby suburbs.
A Western diplomat following the fighting said Assad had to
show he could repel the rebel challenge to Damascus.
"He has to show that letting the bases fall in and round
Damascus is only temporary while he begins to consolidate
resources and personnel and deals with the struggles in the
east," the diplomat said.
Also on Tuesday, two mortar rounds hit the Information
Ministry building in Damascus, causing damage but no casualties,
state televison said. It blamed "terrorists" for the attack, the
usual government term for anti-Assad forces.
On Monday, rebels seized the headquarters of an army
battalion near the southern gate of Damascus, the nearest
military base to the capital reported to have fallen to
In the north, opposition sources said rebel fighters had
captured sections an air defence base at Sheikh Suleiman, 18 km
(11 miles) from the Turkish border and 30 km (20 miles)
northwest of Aleppo.
"The fighters have taken three artillery pieces and have
entered most of the base. Fighter jets are flying over the area
to try and force them out," said Abu Mujahed al-Halabi, an
activist with the opposition Sham News Network.
A rebel source said the fighters seized large stocks of
explosives and would withdraw to avoid retaliatory air strikes.
"Assad's forces use the base to shell many villages and
towns in the countryside. It is now neutralised," the source
MISSILES ON THE BORDER
In Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said
NATO states had agreed to supply Turkey with an advanced Patriot
missile system to defend against Syrian attacks. Talks on its
deployment are in the final stage, he said.
In recent months artillery and mortar fire from Syria has
landed inside Turkey, increasing concern that the anti-Assad
uprising could turn into a regional conflagration.
Turkey, Gulf Arab states and Western powers have all called
for Assad - whose Alawite family have ruled Sunni
Muslim-majority Syria in autocratic fashion for four decades -
to relinquish power. Assad counts on the support of long-time
ally Russia and Shi'ite Iran.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Monday
that any missile deployment would be a defensive measure and not
to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria.
Although the rebels have taken large swathes of land, they
are almost defenceless against the government's air force. They
have called for an internationally enforced no-fly zone, a
measure that helped Libyan rebels overthrow dictator Muammar
Gaddafi last year.
Despite strong censure of Assad, Western powers have shied
away from direct military involvement.
But the political campaign against Assad took a step forward
on Tuesday when British Foreign Secretary William Hague
announced that Britain had decided to recognise the new
coalition of Syrian revolutionary and opposition forces as the
people's sole legitimate representative.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Oliver Holmes,
Erika Solomon and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Mohammed Abbas in
London, Gulsen Solaker and Ece Toksabay; Writing by Angus