200 Assad soldiers guarding Damascus airport defect
Arab News - 23 December, 2012
At least 200 members of a Syrian regime force deployed to protect Damascus'
international airport have defected as clashes broke out near the
presidential palace in the capital, a member of the opposition military told
Al Arabiya channel yesterday.
The Free Syrian Army said clashes continued through yesterday morning at the
airport road, adding that a road connecting the capital with the province of
Daraa was closed and declared a military zone.
A rebel commander who gave his name as Khaldoun told Reuters by Skype that
snipers from the Intelligence Armed Struggle Battalion, part of the
Jundallah Brigade, had hit the wheels of Syrian Airways flight RB201.
Rebels accuse the government of using civilian aircraft to transport weapons
and Iranian fighters who they say are helping President Bashar Assad forces.
Russia not keen on taking Assad
Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday that Syria’s
civil war has reached stalemate and international efforts to persuade
President Bashar Assad to quit will fail.
Russia would welcome any country’s offer of safe haven for Assad, but has no
plans to make one of its own, Lavrov said in the latest comments to suggest
a growing distance between the two allies.
Sergey Lavrov’s remarks on Friday night were among the clearest signs yet
that Russia could be preparing for a Syria without Assad, as rebel pressure
on the embattled leader intensifies. Over the past four weeks, fighting has
reached Damascus, his seat of power, and rebels have captured a string of
Up to now, Russia has vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at
pressuring Syria’s government to stop the violence that has killed more than
40,000 people over the past 21 months. While Russian leaders have given no
concrete signs that stance has changed, their tone has shifted as rebels
advance on the outskirts of the capital.
On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin distanced himself further than
ever from the Syrian president, saying Russia does not seek to protect him
and suggesting his regime is growing weaker.
Speaking to reporters late Friday, Lavrov reiterated Moscow’s position that
“it doesn’t invite President Assad here,” although he said other countries
had asked Russia to convey their offer of safe passage to Assad.
While he would not name the countries, Lavrov said Russia had responded by
telling them to go directly to the Syrian leader.
“If there is anyone willing to provide him guarantees, they are welcome!”
Lavrov said on board a plane returning from Brussels, where he attended a
“We would be the first to cross ourselves and say: “Thank God, the carnage
is over! If it indeed ends the carnage, which is far from certain.”
Syria’s conflict started in March last year as an uprising against Assad,
whose family has ruled the country for four decades. But the bloody
crackdown that followed led rebels to take up arms, and the ensuing fighting
transformed into a civil war.
The regime has come under added condemnation in recent weeks as Western
officials raise concerns Assad might use chemical weapons against rebels in
an act of desperation.
Syria refuses to confirm or deny if it has such weapons but is believed to
have nerve agents as well as mustard gas. It also possesses Scud missiles
capable of delivering them.
Lavrov said the Syrian government has pulled its chemical weapons together
to one or two locations from several arsenals across the country to keep
them safe amid the rebel onslaught.
“According to the information we have, as well as the data of the US and
European special services, the government is doing everything to secure it,”
he said. “The Syrian government has concentrated the stockpiles in one or
two centers, unlike the past when they were scattered across the country.”
Lavrov added that UN-Arab League peace envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi,
would visit Moscow for talks before the year’s end.
'Evict Assad’s gangs or else…"
The conflict’s sectarian dimension looked set to deepen at the weekend, as
rebels threatened to storm two predominantly Christian towns in a central
region if residents do not “evict” government troops they say are using the
towns as a base to attack nearby areas.
A video released by rebels showed Rashid Abul-Fidaa, who identified himself
as the commander of the Ansar Brigade for Hama province, calling on locals
in Mahrada and Sqailbiyeh to rise up against Assad’s forces or prepare for
“You should perform your duty by evicting Assad’s gangs,” said Abdul-Fidaa,
who wore an Islamic headband and was surrounded by gunmen. “Otherwise our
warriors will storm the hideouts of the Assad gangs.”
He also accused regime forces of taking positions in the two towns in order
to “incite sectarian strife” between Christians and the predominantly Sunni
opposition. Assad belongs to the Alawite minority sect, an off-shoot of
The threat comes just two days after a UN team investigating human rights
abuses in Syria accused anti-Assad militants of hiding among the civilian
population, triggering strikes by government artillery and the air force.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the activist group
which reported the rebel ultimatum on Saturday, said such an attack by
rebels could force thousands of Christians from their homes.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population, say they are
particularly vulnerable to the violence sweeping the country of 22 million
people. They are fearful that Syria will become another Iraq, with
Christians caught in the crossfire between rival Islamic groups.
Clashes between troops and rebels in the central city of Homs, Syria’s third
largest, have already displaced tens of thousands of Christians, most of
whom either fled to the relatively safe coastal areas or to neighboring
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said some Christians and
Alawites have also left Hama province in the past several days to escape
violence. He said some of them found shelter in the coastal city of Tartus.
Christian leader seeks peace
In Damascus, the new head of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch said that
Christians in Syria had deep roots in the country and were not part of the
conflict. Speaking to reporters in Damascus, Patriarch John X. Yazigi urged
rival factions to negotiate a settlement.
Violence continued unabated on Saturday, particularly in the capital.
The Observatory said a car bomb went off in the Damascus neighborhood of
Qaboun, killing at least five people and wounding others. A Syrian official
confirmed the blast but had no immediate comment regarding casualties.
Elsewhere, the Syrian army said in a statement carried on state-run TV that
it had repelled a rebel attack on a military base that killed a regimental
commander in the Damascus suburb of Chebaa.
Also in Damascus, the state-run news agency SANA said gunmen assassinated a
cameraman for the government’s TV station, the latest such killing in recent
In another development, 11 rebel groups said they have formed a new
coalition, the Syrian Islamic Front.
A statement issued by the new group, dated Dec. 21 and posted on a militant
website Saturday, described it as “a comprehensive Islamic front that adopts
Islam as a religion, doctrine, approach and conduct.”
Several rebel groups have declared their own coalitions in Syria, including
one calling itself an “Islamic state” in the embattled northern city of
The statement said the new group will work to avoid differences or disputes
with the other Islamic groups.
— Additional input from agencies