* Heaviest fighting in Damascus for months
* NATO agrees to supply missile defence for 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 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 any such deployment would be for defensive purposes
only, it nonetheless marked a hardening stance in the foreign
effort to remove 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 Syrian people's legitimate representative.
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".
On Tuesday, elite Republican Guard troops attacked the rebel
stronghold of Daraya on the city's southwestern edge but met
resistance from rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army,
opposition sources said.
Seven civilians and three rebels were killed in fighting and
bombardments on Daraya, the sources said.
Video footage showed the body of a baby at a hospital. A
young couple died from shrapnel when artillery hit the basement
of a building in which they were sheltering, activists said.
"The Republican Guards are hitting the town with tanks,
artillery and rockets. Most civilians had fled and those who
have stayed are trapped with no where to escape," Abu Kinan, an
activist in the Daraya, said by phone.
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.
In total, 100 people were killed in violence on Tuesday, 64
of them civilians, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for
Human Rights said.
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 seized three artillery pieces and large stocks
of explosives but would withdraw to avoid retaliatory air
strikes, opposition source said.
"Assad's forces use the base to shell many villages and
towns in the countryside. It is now neutralised," one said.
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.
Only the United States, the Netherlands have the appropriate
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 has often scrambled fighter jets along the border in
a warning to Damascus as Syrian war planes and helicopters bomb
rebel positions just a few kilometres (miles) from Turkish soil.
Dogan news agency reported that two anti-aircraft missiles
fired from Syria had struck a vegetable market and a road in the
border district of Turkey's Hatay province on Tuesday.
Turkey, Gulf Arab states and Western powers have all called
for Assad - whose Alawite family has 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
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 recognised the new opposition coalition
as the Syrian people's sole legitimate representative.
The British move goes further than the European Union, which
recognised the coalition but not exclusively. Washington has
also stopped short of full recognition.
Britain says no option is off the table but Hague told
parliament no decision had been taken to supply military aid.
"It's a morale boost. It gives some credibility to the
opposition, and it could lay the platform practically for more
effective ways of channelling support, plus some quasi-military
support," said David Butter, Middle East expert at London-based
thinktank Chatham House.
An estimated 38,000 people have been killed in Syria since
an Arab Spring-inspired uprising against Assad began in March
last year. The initially peaceful protests turned into an armed
rebellion after a government crackdown.