US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is greeted by Irish
Prime Minister Enda Kenny (R) as she arrives at Government
Buildings in Dublin for talks aimed at putting a UN peace
process for Syria back on track. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
Western powers are whipping up fear of chemical weapons
as a pretext to intervene in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad's
government said, after several Western countries said they
feared Assad might use poison gas.
"Syria stresses again, for the tenth, the hundredth time,
that if we had such weapons, they would not be used against
its people. We would not commit suicide," Deputy Foreign
Minister Faisal al Maqdad told Lebanon's Al Manar television,
the voice of the pro-Assad Hezbollah movement.
"We fear there is a conspiracy to provide a pretext for any
subsequent interventions in Syria by these countries that are
increasing pressure on Syria."
As darkness fell in the embattled capital, the highway to
Damascus international airport was closed by fighting,
witnesses said. Rebels said they would not storm the airport
but would encircle it to stop flights supplying the army.
Fighting in Syria's 20-month civil war has intensified around
the capital in the past week, prompting Western commentators
to speak of an "end-game" that could soon see Assad toppled
Several Western countries have issued coordinated warnings
this week to Assad's government not to use chemical weapons,
many citing secret intelligence that U.S. officials said
showed the Assad government might be preparing to use poison
Syria has not signed the international chemical weapons
treaty that bans the use and storage of poison gas, but has
repeatedly said it would never use such arms on its own
NATO also decided this week to send U.S., German and Dutch
batteries of Patriot anti-aircraft missiles to Turkey's
border with Syria, meaning hundreds of American and European
troops deploying to the frontier for the first time.
Western countries have so far resisted conducting the sort of
intervention in Syria's civil war that saw NATO air strikes
help topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year.
Germany approved the Patriot missile mission on Thursday.
NATO says it is a defensive step to prevent cross border
missile strikes on alliance member Turkey, but Syria fears it
could be a prelude to imposing a no-fly zone over its
With conditions worsening on the ground, Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton and Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi were in Dublin to
try to put get a U.N. peace process on track.
Russia, backed by China, has so far blocked U.N. resolutions
against Assad in a war that has killed more than 40,000
people. But there are signs that Moscow's patience with its
ally may be wearing thing.
A Russian lawmaker and ally of President Vladimir Putin on
Thursday said "time has shown" that Syria's government has
lost the strength to function as it should.
Rebel spokesman Abu Nidal said the army was pinned down along
the airport highway by nightfall on Thursday by rebel
fighters manoeuvring to mount a blockade. The airport is not
closed but commercial traffic has almost ceased.
"We know that arms have been going to the regime through the
civilian airport," he said. A blockade would be "a good tool
to put more pressure on the regime, which is part of strategy
of trying to drain their strength".
Western powers have shown no enthusiasm for armed
intervention in Syria, preferring economic sanctions,
diplomatic pressure and limited aid to rebel forces, who get
most of their guns and ammunition paid for by sympathetic
Britain said on Thursday it will increase practical support
for the rebels to include training and equipment such as body
armour and night-vision goggles. But they will not get the
anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles they are crying out for.
Exactly what Syria's army has done with suspected chemical
weapons to prompt a surge of Western warnings over the past
two days is not clear. Reports citing Western intelligence
and defence sources are vague and inconsistent.
Clinton said on Wednesday Washington was concerned both about
the possible use of chemical arms by "an increasingly
desperate" Assad, and about the government losing control of
such weapons to extremist armed groups.
While Western countries support the rebel aim of toppling
Assad, they are also uncomfortable with some rebel groups,
which espouse radical Sunni Islamist views. The prospect of
some rebels obtaining chemical weapons could be more
frightening to Western policymakers than Assad.
U.S. officials said the Obama administration was considering
blacklisting Jabhat al-Nusra, an influential rebel group
accused by other rebels of indiscriminate tactics that has
advocated an Islamic state in Syria and is suspected of ties
to al Qaeda.
An explosion at the Damascus headquarters of the Syrian Arab
Red Crescent killed at least one person on Thursday, Syrian
state television said. It blamed "terrorists from al Qaeda" -
a term the government often employs to refer to rebel forces.
Opposition activists said army artillery pummelled several
eastern suburbs of Damascus, where the rebels are dominant.
Suburbs have been cut off for weeks from water and
electricity, rebels say, accusing the government of
Residents of the cosmopolitan capital - until now largely
spared the ravages of a war concentrated in the provinces and
other cities - speak of a city under siege.
"I wanted to run a simple errand, to pay my cell phone. It
should have taken 7 minutes but it took 25 because they've
blocked the main road and the detour road," said one woman.
"So we took a route all the way round the city that was very
crowded with the traffic of everyone trying to get home.
People are very resentful - and the VIPs must be very
Rebels say they have also surrounded an air base 4 km (2-1/2
mikes) from the centre of Damascus, a fresh sign the battle
is closing in on the Syrian capital.
Maqdad denied that. "What is sad is that foreign countries
believe these repeated rumours," he said.
Rebel and state claims about the military situation cannot be
verified independently. But residents in the capital say the
sound of shelling on the outskirts has become a constant
backdrop and many fear the fight will soon come to Damascus.
Fighting was reported on Thursday in the rural outskirts of
Damascus and in many parts of the country. A crucial supply
line for the army, the Damascus-Aleppo road, was hit by