Clinton says "desperate" Assad could use chemical arms

Wed Dec 5, 2012 10:50am EST
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By Erika Solomon and David Brunnstrom

BEIRUT/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Washington fears a "desperate" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could use chemical weapons as rebels bear down on Damascus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday, repeating a vow to take swift action if he does.

Rebels fighting to overthrow Assad said they had surrounded an air base near Damascus, a fresh sign that battle is closing in on the Syrian capital, a day after NATO agreed to send air defense missiles to Turkey.

The Western military alliance's decision to send U.S., German and Dutch Patriot missile batteries to help defend the Turkish border would bring European and U.S. troops to Syria's frontier for the first time in the 20-month civil war.

Rebels said representatives of their armed groups were meeting in Turkey with officials from the new National Coalition, an opposition group now recognized by Turkey and several Arab and Western countries as Syria's legitimate authority.

The coalition plans to create a transitional government in exile, as well as a new military structure to unify the rebels, plagued by divisions and rivalries even as they advance.

"The goal is to get us on track to move towards a unified force, though we are not there yet. But right now, the priority is to create a structured leadership for all the rebels to follow," said a rebel organizer based in Turkey.

Heavier fighting erupted around Damascus a week ago, bringing a war that had previously been fought mainly in the provinces to the center of Assad's power. Fighters said on Wednesday they had surrounded the Aqraba air base, about 4 km (2-1/2 miles) outside the capital.

"We still do not control the air base but the fighters are choking it off. We hope within the coming hours we can take it," said Abu Nidal, a spokesman for a rebel force called the Habib al-Mustafa brigade.   Continued...

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a news conference at the NATO headquarters in Brussels December 5, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque