Rebels say they have momentum capturing heavy weapons from the Syrian army and are closing in on Damascus, but the entire region is still bracing for what could be a very violent end to one of the Middle East's most entrenched regimes. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad said Friday that Damascus International Airport was now a "legitimate target” and warned civilians going there did so "at their own risk."
The announcement comes as fighting between Assad's troops and rebels intensified near the airport just south of the capital.
Clashes in the area forced the closure of the airport road for the second time this week.
The fighting has also forced the suspension of commercial flights in the past week.
Two fighters operating in the capital's southern suburbs said the rebels were trying to besiege the airport in an attempt to cut military supplies to the regime. The two spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Endgame for Assad?
Western opponents of Assad suggested that an endgame was approaching in the 20-month-old conflict that has killed 40,000 people.
"Events on the ground in Syria are accelerating, and we see that in many different ways," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said before talks on Thursday with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, which has backed Assad.
"The pressure against the regime in and around Damascus seems to be increasing," Clinton said in Dublin.
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Syria's government says that is not the case, and that the army is driving rebels back from positions in the suburbs and outskirts of Damascus where they have tried to concentrate their offensive.
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Many who have followed the events on the ground say talk of an endgame is overblown or premature.
"I think it's unreasonable to expect that the battle is in its last stages right now," said Rami Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has tracked the fighting since it began in March 2011.
"The big advances are only in the media. The situation is certainly not good, for anyone. The Syrian economy is dead. But conditions for the rebels are not good either. ... Rebel-held parts of Aleppo are barely eating and are always at risk of army shelling,” he added.
"It is true however that the regime is withdrawing from many areas ... and the regime is being exhausted," he told Reuters.
Airport 'under siege'
Cutting access to the airport —just 12 miles from the city center — would be a symbolic blow. The rebels acknowledge it is still in army hands.
"The rebel brigades who have been putting the airport under siege decided yesterday that the airport is a military zone," said Nabil al-Amir, a spokesman for the rebels' Damascus Military Council. "The airport is now full of armored vehicles and soldiers."
International concerns are mounting about Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, many of which are believed to be stored in war heads that could be fitted on hundreds of scud missiles, in artillery shells and in air-dropped munitions. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.
"Civilians who approach it now do so at their own risk," he said.
Fighters had "waited two weeks for the airport to be emptied of most civilians and airlines" before declaring it a target, he added.
He did not say what they would do if aircraft tried to land. A rebel spokesman on Thursday said fighters would not "storm the airport but we will blockade it."
Foreign airlines have suspended all flights to Damascus since fighting approached the airport in the past week, although some Syrian Air flights have used the airport in recent days.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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