x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Syrian rebels seize airbase as they progress towards Damascus

Syrian rebels say they have 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.

AMMAN // Syrian rebels say they have 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 kilomestres from the capital, is the second military facility on the outskirts of the city reported to have fallen to Mr Al 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 centres to the east and north-east 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."

Mr Al Assad's core forces, drawn mainly from his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite 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 neighbourhoods on the periphery.

A western diplomat following the fighting said Mr Al 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 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.

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.

Nato has said the possible deployment of the missiles was purely defensive.