Syrian troops take back key Damascus suburb, Daraya

The day after rebel forces took a key air base in northwest Syria, the Syrian army announced their control of Daraya, a suburb of Damascus. Each side seems to be alternatively making advances and losing ground, with little progress overall in the Syrian conflict.

Kenan Al-Derani/Reuters
Men bury bodies of people that activists said were killed by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at a cemetery in Daraya, near Damascus December 28. On Saturday, the Syrian army announced its control of Daraya, which had previously been a rebel stronghold.

Syrian troops have captured most of a strategic Damascus suburb used by rebels as a base to threaten key regime facilities in the capital, a government official said Saturday.

The announcement that regime forces had taken Daraya came a day after anti-government activists said rebels and Islamic militants seeking to topple President Bashar Assad took full control of Taftanaz air base in the northwest. That dealt a significant blow to Assad's military, with helicopters, tanks and multiple rocket launchers seized.

The back-to-back declarations highlight the see-saw nature of the conflict in Syria, where one side's victories in one area are often followed by reverses in another.

"The army is battling some small pockets (of rebels) and (Daraya) will be safe within few days," the official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Syrian troops have been battling for weeks to regain Daraya from the hands of anti-government fighters. The suburb, just south of Damascus, is on the edge of the strategic military air base of Mazzeh in a western neighborhood of the capital. It borders the Kfar Sousseh neighborhood that is home to the government headquarters, the General Security intelligence agency head office and the Interior Ministry, which was the target of a recent suicide attack that wounded the interior minister.

The suburb is also less than six miles from the People's Palace - one of three palaces in the capital used by Assad.

Syria's pro-government media had reported that thousands of rebel fighters from the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra group have holed up in Daraya in preparation to storm Damascus.

Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. and which Washington claims is affiliated with al-Qaida, has been among the most effective fighting force on the rebel side in the battle to oust Assad. Syrian official statements regularly play up the role of Islamist extremists within the rebel movement.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Daraya and other suburbs of the capital were being shelled on Saturday.

The group also said Syrian warplanes were also attacking eastern suburbs of Damascus including Mleiha, as well as the rebel-held town of Rastan near the central city of Homs.

More than 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011 in Syria's conflict, which has turned into an outright civil war driving hundreds of thousands from their homes and across the borders into neighboring countries.

Shortly after they captured the Taftanaz field in Idlib province, rebels in the neighboring province of Aleppo intensified their assault on the Mannagh air base and the international airport of the city of Aleppo, which includes a military base. Rebels have been trying to capture the two sites since last week, along with a third airfield known as Kweires.

State-run Syrian TV reported Saturday that the army repelled rebels who attacked Kishek airport in Aleppo and inflicted casualties among the attackers. It gave no further details.

The Observatory reported Saturday that warplanes carried out air raids around the international airport of Aleppo in an attempt to push back the rebels attacking it.

The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said troops and rebels clashed in the southern town of Busra al-Harir in the Daraa province where the uprising against Assad's regime began nearly two years ago.

The violence came a day after a meeting on Syria's conflict in Geneva in which international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said that he doesn't expect a political solution to emerge anytime soon. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns took part in the talks along with Brahimi, and the U.N. envoy said he felt that Russia was as determined as Washington to end the violence.

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Saturday it is still strongly against any foreign interference in the war-torn country's affairs. "As before, we strongly believe that all the issues concerning Syria's future must be decided by the Syrians themselves, without outside interference or the imposition of ready-made recipes for development," the statement said.

Also Saturday, Qatar reiterated its proposals to send an Arab peacekeeping force to Syria. Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani told Al-Jazeera TV that Arabs should think seriously about sending troops to maintain security in Syria if diplomacy fails to resolve the crisis.

Hamad said that such a move would not constitute military intervention and would not be intended to help one side against the other, rather to help "stop the bloodbath in Syria."

The Qatari prime minister, who is one of Assad's harshest critics, said that any solution that does not include a change in who holds power will not stop the bloodbath in Syria. "We support the direction of the opposition and the Syrian people to liberate themselves from this regime," he said, meaning that Assad must step down.

The issue of whether Assad should step down is one of the key obstacles to any peace settlement. The rebels oppose any transition that does not remove him from power, while the regime would oppose any transition that does.

Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Abdullah Rebhy in Doha, Qatar contributed to this report.

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