x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Syria rebels seize strategic area near Aleppo's airport

The capturing of the Sheikh Said neighbourhood, south-east of Aleppo, is a significant blow to regime forces because the area includes a major road, linking the northern city with the airport. The army has used the road to supply troops.

Mouaz Al Khatib, left, the president of the Syrian National Coalition, and the US vice president, Joe Biden, meet for talks in Germany on Saturday. Tobias Hase / EPA
Mouaz Al Khatib, left, the president of the Syrian National Coalition, and the US vice president, Joe Biden, meet for talks in Germany on Saturday. Tobias Hase / EPA

BEIRUT // Syrian rebels captured a strategic neighbourhood near Aleppo's airport yesterday, putting opposition fighters in control of a key road that the regime had used to ferry supplies and reinforcements to soldiers fighting in the embattled northern city, activists said.

Troops loyal to the president, Bashar Al Assad, and rebels have been locked in a deadly stalemate in Aleppo, Syria's largest urban centre and main commercial hub, since an opposition assault last summer. Seven months later, the rebels hold large parts of the city and its outskirts, including several army bases, but they have been unable to overcome the regime's far superior firepower.

The capturing of the Sheikh Said neighbourhood, south-east of Aleppo, is a significant blow to regime forces because the area includes a major road, linking the northern city with the airport. The army has used the road to supply troops.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that rebels captured the area yesterday after several days of fierce battles with Mr Al Assad's troops. Rebels had previously established enclaves outside Syria's major cities to threaten the regime, including near the capital, Damascus, but they were later attacked by Mr Al Assad's fighter jets and artillery.

The opposition's western backers, including the United States, have been reluctant to supply rebels with more sophisticated weapons because of the increased influence of an Al Qaeda-affiliated group among the anti-Assad fighters on the front lines. The Islamists growing prominence in the Syrian opposition has fuelled fears that Muslim radicals might try to hijack the revolt that started as peaceful protests against Mr Al Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.

Yesterday a senior Iranian security official pledged the full support of Tehran for the Syrian regime, its close ally, Syrian state television said.

"We will give all our support so that Syria remains firm and able to face all the arrogant [western powers] conspiracies," said Saeed Jalili, who heads the Supreme National Security Council and who is visiting Damascus.

"The Israeli aggression and arrogant international forces have tried to take revenge by attacking the resisting Syrian people," said Mr Jalili, who described Israel and the West's attempts as "desperate".

He was referring to an alleged Israeli air strike on Wednesday that a US official said hit a military complex and missiles near the Syrian capital.

In Germany yesterday, the US vice president, Joe Biden, said, "The opposition [to Assad] continues to grow stronger."

Speaking at an annual security conference in Munich, Mr Biden said that he must leave power.

"President Assad - a tyrant hellbent on clinging to power - is no longer fit to lead the Syrian people and he must go."

Mr Al Assad has repeated brushed aside international calls to step down.

The opposition coalition has rejected any talks with Damascus until Mr Al Assad steps down. However, Moaz Al Khatib, the president of the coalition that is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood movement, said on Wednesday that he is willing to negotiate with members of Mr Al Assad's regime to bring a peaceful end to the country's civil war.

Last night, Mr Biden held a separate meeting in Munich with Mr Al Khatib as well as the international envoy to Syria's conflict, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.

Russia is Mr Al Assad's ally, and it has disagreed sharply with Washington and its western allies on ways to end the bloodshed in Syria. Moscow has maintained that Mr Al Assad is part of the solution to the crisis, although Russian officials have recently criticised their ally in Damascus and even mentioned the possibility of rebels winning the war.

However, Mr Lavrov told the gathering of top security officials that Mr Biden's statement that Mr Al Assad must go was counterproductive.

"The persistence of those who say that priority No 1 is the removal of president Assad - I think it's the single biggest reason for the continued tragedy in Syria," Mr Lavrov said.

Syria's civil war is estimated to have claimed more than 60,000 lives since the uprising against Mr Al Assad erupted in March 2011.

Despite disagreements on ways to end the fighting and Mr Al Assad's role in peace efforts, Mr Lavrov said that Russia shared the West's concern over the fate of Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons.

As the regime grows more desperate to retain power, many fear it could use the weapons against its own people - a claim Damascus has repeatedly denied. There have also been concerns that conventional and unconventional weapons that Syria is said to have could end up in the hands of Islamist radicals.

"The red line is a common line for all of us. We are categorically against any use of weapons of mass destruction, be it chemical, be it biological, be it nuclear," Mr Lavrov said.

He added that the Syrian government has repeatedly assured Moscow that it is watching over those weapons and keeping the rebels away from the sensitive sites.