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One rebel commander said that attacks on the airport were justified because the facility is being used as a military zone. “The airport is now full of armored vehicles and soldiers.” Nabil al-Amir, a spokesman for the rebels’ Damascus Military Council, told the Reuters news agency.
If the rebels are able to take over the facility, it would be a significant strategic and symbolic victory and could indicate a bigger push to bring the fight to the capital. The heavy violence in recent days has left its mark on the area around the airport and could signal an even tougher battle ahead for the rebels.
“Eyewitnesses told us there are signs of fierce clashes with destroyed vehicles and trucks with bodies inside around the area,” said Alexia Jaad, an activist in Damascus.
Also on Friday, Syrian rebel groups meeting in Istanbul chose the 30 members of its new unified command, many of whom reportedly have links to the Muslim Brotherhood, according to an unnamed attendee at the meeting quoted by the Reuters news agency. The meeting for the formation of the new command body was attended by security officials from the United States, Britain, France, Jordan and Gulf countries.
“The command has been organized into several fronts. We are now in the process of electing a military leader and a political liaison office for each region,” one delegate who didn’t want to be named told Reuters.
Absent from the meeting were some senior commanders from the Free Syrian Army. “They formed a new command, and we were not even asked to be nominated,” said Col. Malik Kurdi, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army. “This new command was an outcome of an international acceptance to exclude the former commanders of the Free Syrian Army and get new commanders.”
Kurdi said the selection of the new command body was driven by Qatar and Saudi Arabia and would spark in-fighting among rebel groups rather than draw them together. “I see a dark future because those who are taking over are guided and controlled by external will and are not free rebels fighting for the good of Syria,” he said.
The selection of the new body comes four days before the Friends of Syria, a group of foreign nations supporting the Syrian opposition, are to meet in Morocco. In recent weeks, the United States, Britain, France and other supporters of the opposition have pushed the rebel groups to become more organized, with stronger ties between political representatives outside Syria and the military commanders inside the country.
In Belfast on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that a free Syria can never include the leader now fighting to hang onto his three-decade regime, underscoring the American goal for new U.S.-Russian cooperation on Syria.
Clinton was in Ireland to discuss the Syrian crisis with the Russian foreign minister and the U.N. envoy for Syria in an effort by the United States to gain Russian cooperation in resolving the conflict. Russia has been an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Clinton called the visit with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, held Thursday in Dublin, constructive but very preliminary. The two diplomats agreed to support efforts by Lakhdar Brahim, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, a decision Clinton said was influenced by the rapid escalation of the 20-month civil war.
“I don’t think anyone believes that there was some great breakthrough,” Clinton said. “No one should have any illusions about how hard this remains.”
Anyone with any influence on the regime or the rebels is duty-bound to try to intervene for a “political transition,” in Syria, Clinton said.
The transition phrase is a euphemism the United States has employed to make the goal of ousting Assad easier for his Russian backers to swallow. But Clinton followed it with a flat statement that Assad cannot hope to survive any reordering of the Syrian government that the new cooperation might foster.
The United States wants freedom and protections for all Syrians and will hold all parties to account, Clinton said.
“A future of this kind cannot possibly include Assad,” Clinton said.
Gearan reported from Belfast. Suzan Haidamous and Ahmed Ramadan contributed to this report.