x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

US warms to plan for Patriot missiles in Turkey

Washington is 'well disposed' to deployment of ground-to-air missiles after villages on Turkish border hit by Syrian artillery rounds.

The United States is "favourably disposed" towards Turkey's request to Nato to deploy surface-to-air Patriot missiles on its border with Syria, a US official said yesterday.

Turkey's border villages have been hit by artillery fire from Syria as government forces battle rebels seeking to topple Bashar Al Assad's regime.

The Nato chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, had said the alliance would consider the request "without delay" and the body was to meet again yesterday.

"We obviously ... take the security of our Nato ally, Turkey, very seriously and we would be favourably disposed to this," said Mark Toner, the state department deputy spokesman.

"We want to everything we can to protect our close ally," Mr Toner said, adding that the details of such a deployment still had to be worked out by alliance members.

Mr Fogh Rasmussen said the deployment would augment alliance member Turkey's air defence capabilities and "would contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis along Nato's south-eastern border".

He also noted that the deployment of the US-built Patriots would not mean imposing a no-fly zone over Syrian territory, a key demand of opposition groups.

In Syria, warplanes bombed a Damascus suburb yesterday, opposition activists said, as heavy fighting raged for the second day on the outskirts, challenging Mr Mr Al Assad's hold on the capital.

MiG fighter jets hit the suburb of Daraya, an opposition centre of the 20-month revolt situated amid farmland near the main southern road, where rebels have been battling Republican Guard units.

The pro-government Al Khbariya television station said the army had begun a campaign to "cleanse" Daraya of what it described as terrorists, and showed troops on the edge of the town, where activists reported 23 people killed in two days.

But rebels and activists suggested that Mr Al Assad's forces were finding it harder to dislodge the rebels than when they last entered the suburb in August.

After months of slow progress, the rebels have in the last few weeks captured several army positions on the outskirts of Damascus and outlying regions, including a special forces base near Aleppo, and an air defence position near the southern gate of the capital, according to activists, video footage and diplomats following the military situation.

Also yesterday, Syria's army repelled a rebel attack on a military base at Sheikh Suleiman, 25 kilometres north-west of Aleppo, and killed at least 25 insurgents, a watchdog said. Rebel fighters have besieged the base for several weeks, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The rebels have now been forced to pull back as forces loyal Mr Al Assad win back ground in north-west Syria.

Mr Al Assad's opponents were gaining some support internationally as the coalition of opposition and rebel groups seeks recognition as the legitimate voice of the Syrian people, with Britain becoming the ninth country to grant it such status.

Shashank Joshi ,of the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) in London, said the developments of the last few weeks were shifting the balance in favour of the rebels.

"The use of the world 'stalemate' to describe the conflict may no longer be appropriate," he said. "The rebels have moved up the ladder of warfare."

Fighting was also reported in Damascus's eastern suburb of Irbin, where rebels said they had destroyed one tank and killed two Republican Guards. "The whole eastern Ghouta is basically a liberated area. Assad's army still has superior firepower, but is being eroded. It can no longer push forward with a lot of troops," said Abu Ghazi, an activist-turned-fighter in Irbin.

Seven civilians and three rebels were killed in fighting and bombardments on Daraya, opposition sources said.

Two died from shrapnel wounds when artillery hit the basement of a building in which they were sheltering, activists said, and a video posted on YouTube showed the body of a baby at a hospital.

The official state news agency said that "terrorists" - a term it uses for rebels - had attacked shops and homes in Daraya, as well as a mosque.

"Last time the rebels were in Daraya, they worked separately and the regime moved in, drove them out and took revenge on the civilian population," said Fawaz Tello, a veteran opposition campaigner with links to rebels.

"The fact that the rebels have recaptured Daraya and are fending off Assad's best forces indicates a change on the ground," Mr Tello said from Berlin. "The rebels' military position is still difficult, but it is improving."

* Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Associated Press