Beirut: Syrian rebels clashed with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad near Damascus airport on Tuesday, battling for the capital's outskirts after 20 months of conflict which the United Nations said has driven half a million people from the country.
Fighting near the airport, 20 km (12 miles) south-east of Damascus city centre, is part of a broader confrontation between the army and rebels who hold a near continuous arc of territory from the east to the southwest of Assad's power base.
The growing military power of the rebels is matched by the increasing foreign support for Syria's political opposition coalition, which expects to win broad recognition at an international meeting in Morocco on Wednesday.
The centre of Damascus, shielded for months from the violence which has killed 40,000 people since March 2011, echoed to the sound of shelling from Monday evening, residents said.
"There were very heavy clashes since yesterday in the town of Haran, on the eastern side of the airport, and there has been intermittent fighting in the Aqraba area by the airport," said rebel spokesman Mussab Abu Qitada.
"The rebels are trying to maintain an encirclement of the airport. They are also still surrounding the Aqraba air base, on the international airport road," he said by Skype from Damascus.
The shelling inside the capital appeared to be directed from the Qasioun mountain range, overlooking northern Damascus, towards the rebellious southern suburbs.
The mainly Sunni Muslim rebels have made military gains against the forces still loyal to Assad, many of them from Syria's Alawite religious minority. The rebels have seized military bases across the country in the last month and are starting to encircle the capital, where power cuts and food shortages are hurting residents bracing for winter.
"We are barely surviving," said a woman in the Midan district who would only identify herself as Umm Ahmed. She said she queued in vain from 6 am until midday at bakeries which ran out of bread before she could buy any at the normal price, leaving her looking for supplies at much inflated rates.
"If I want to buy it on the street, the black market price is 150 lira (about $2) - three times the cost," she said. "We are living without electricity and water, and the food is very expensive."
Central Damascus has been suffering up to 12 hours of power cuts a day, residents say. Movement around the city, peppered with security checkpoints, is increasingly difficult and soldiers, security forces and local vigilantes are everywhere.
SEEKING WORLD SUPPORT
The conflict started with street protests inspired by uprisings across the Arab world. Demonstrations were met with gunfire by Assad's forces and spiralled into the most protracted and destructive battle of the Arab uprisings.
Assad's political and armed opponents, dogged by splits and rivalries throughout their battle to end his family's 42-year rule, have established a more unified political opposition and military command, hoping to win international recognition and stronger support on the battlefield.
"All indications on the ground signal the end of the regime of Bashar al-Assad," leading opposition figure Riad Seif said on the eve of a meeting in the Moroccan city of Marrakech of a broad grouping of governments opposed to Assad.
"We expect this meeting to fully recognise the coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people," he told Reuters.
France, Britain, Turkey and the Gulf states have already granted the formal recognition. The European Union, in a meeting on Monday, moved a step closer towards recognition and the United States has suggested it could also endorse the coalition.
"We are telling the international community that we don't want their military intervention but we want them to supply us with a developed anti-aircraft defence systems," Seif added.
"The Syrian people can finish off the battle within weeks if we get this support."
His comments were echoed by Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, who said the days of Assad rule over Syria were numbered. "The regime is gradually losing control over all parts of the country. No regime can dominate the will of its people," Davutoglu told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.
But little in the way of direct military or financial support is expected to be channelled to the coalition at the Morocco meeting, partly because it lacks the ability to act as a provisional government and because Western powers are still wary of backing Islamist fighters in the rebel ranks.
A diplomat attending the meeting also said there had been much "jockeying for position within the coalition without addressing the main political issues" including making arrangements to work with Syria's Alawite, Kurdish and Christian minorities and creating a framework for transitional justice.
Last week, as fighting raged on the outskirts of Damascus, several Western countries warned Assad not to deploy chemical weapons, many citing secret intelligence that U.S. officials have said his government might be preparing to use poison gas.
But U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday United States intelligence agencies have detected no new moves by the Syrian government in recent days that would indicate it was preparing to use chemical weapons against rebel forces.
"The intelligence has really kind of leveled off. We haven't seen anything new indicating any aggressive steps to move forward in that way," Panetta said.
Washington also announced it had designated the radical Islamist rebel groups Jabhat al-Nusra, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of car bombs and also fights alongside other rebel Syrian brigades, as a terrorist organisation.
Designating it a terrorist group means Americans are prohibited from giving Jabhat al-Nusra any support.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence through a network of sources inside Syria, said 80 people had been killed by nightfall on Tuesday.
In the northern province of Idlib, rebels said they had taken the Christian village of al-Jdeideh, killing what they described as Alawite shabbiha militia but sparing Christians.
"With help from God Almighty, a group of battalions and people from al-Jdeideh have liberated the village of al-Jdeideh. The Alawite shabbiha were eliminated," said a fighter identified as Abu al-Abed in video footage. "But the church was not touched," he added. "Not a single Christian person was hurt.
"That is a message we want the world to hear."
The fighting has driven hundreds of thousands of Syrians into neighbouring countries and the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said on Tuesday more than half a million were either registered or awaiting registration in the region.
Lebanon is now host to 154,387 registered Syrian refugees, Jordan has 142,664, Turkey 136,319, Iraq 65,449 and North Africa 11,740, UNHCR said in a statement issued in Geneva. In addition, there are more than 1.5 million Syrians who fled violence in their homes and are displaced in safer areas within the country.
Large numbers of Syrians have also crossed into neighbouring countries but have not yet come forward to register for refugee status and assistance, it said. These include about 100,000 in Jordan, 70,000 each in both Turkey and Egypt and tens of thousands in Lebanon, it said, citing government estimates.
© Thomson Reuters 2012