Rebels Making Gains In Syria Conflict

In Syria, the rebels are beginning to make inroads against Bashar Assad's regime. The heaviest fighting has been centered around the country's international airport in Damascus.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

The conflict in Syria is shifting. The latest assessment from Germany's intelligence chief is that the regime will not survive, and the war in Damascus is in its final phase. The Obama administration is expected to officially recognize the newly formed Syrian National Coalition this week, after France, Britain and Gulf States offered official recognition.

In a moment, we'll talk about U.S. strategy in the region. But first, we turned to NPR's Deborah Amos, who's monitoring events in Syria from Antakya, in southern Turkey.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The focus of the Syrian War has shifted to the capital, Damascus. Rebels hold neighborhoods in the southern suburbs and in the east of the capital; the Syrian air force has kept up withering airstrikes to drive them back.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

AMOS: The heaviest fighting is centered around the Damascus International Airport, as you can hear on this video posted by the rebels. On Friday, they declared the airport a battle zone and warned civilians to stay away. The airport is a strategic and symbolic target.

Shutting down this crucial link to the outside world sends a political message, says this rebel commander. He's a major who defected from the army and can't be named for his security.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If you don't control the airport of your capital that means you are not a real country. That means the regime is finished, almost finished, at least towards the world.

AMOS: It is also a strategic target, he says. Rebels say that the civilian airport is now a hub for military resupply. The rebels control the highway that leads to the airport, he says.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's impossible for anybody to go to the airport without checking points with our guys and our fighters.

AMOS: As the airport battle continued, rebel commanders elected a new unified military leadership on Friday, after a three day meeting in Turkey. There is a 30-member military council. A former brigadier general was elected chief of staff. The structure is more like a traditional army than a guerilla force, with a council dominated by defected military officers. The military command is set to coordinate with the newly formed political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition.

The new military council excluded extreme Islamist groups, but that's unlikely to blunt their influence on the ground. The ranks of militant rebels are growing, estimated around 10,000 fighters. They've emerged as the most effective fighting force, capturing army bases and amassing weapons. They have also won support from civilians by distributing free bread and cooking fuel as food supplies run short in towns that have been under siege for months.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Antakya, Turkey.

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