Syrian rebels declared Damascus International Airport to be a legitimate target Friday after days of heavy fighting around the facility and warned civilians to stay away.
The airport has been operating only sporadically in the past week, with some international airlines choosing to avoid using it altogether. A rebel offensive on the airport could shut it down to commercial traffic for the foreseeable future, cutting off one of the few links the country has to the outside world.
One rebel commander said 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 a new unified command, designed to serve as a military counterpart to the Syrian Opposition Coalition that has been recognized by a handful of countries. The Istanbul gathering was attended by security representatives from the United States, France, Britain and other countries that are supporting the political opposition group, said a diplomat whose government sent a representative.
"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.
Some leaders of the Free Syrian Army complained that they were not included in the new grouping, which they charged was dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and would divide rather than unify the rebel fighters. "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," said Col. Malik Kurdi, a Free Syrian Army spokesman.
The diplomat, who declined to be named because he said Syrians, rather than foreigners, should be describing their decisions, dismissed the complaints as understandable "frustrations and rivalries" within the opposition movement.
Leaders of the opposition political coalition will meet with European Union governments in Brussels on Monday. Britain, France and several other governments have said they will move to amend an arms embargo against Syria so they can broaden non-lethal military aid to the rebels to include items that are currently barred, such as body armor and night vision goggles.
Later in the week, opposition leaders are to meet in Morocco with the Friends of Syria group of foreign governments who support them.
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 United States wants freedom and protections for all Syrians and will hold all parties to account, Clinton said, adding: "A future of this kind cannot possibly include Assad.''
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Gearan reported from Belfast. Karen DeYoung in Washington and Suzan Haidamous and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut contributed to this report.