Dozens dead in airport attack as Moscow talks founder

Dozens dead in airport attack as Moscow talks founder
Forces loyal to Syria's regime repel an attack by rebel fighters likely from the Islamic State group in battle over regional airport. Talks in Moscow, meanwhile, seem moribund.
3 min read
11 April, 2015
A howitzer unloads at IS positions near Aleppo [Anadolu]

Pro-government forces repelled an attack on a key Syrian airport during a fierce battle in which they lost 20 fighters but killed almost as many militants, a monitor said Saturday.

"There was an attack on the outskirts of the Khalkhalah military airport in Sweida province on Friday," said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organisation seen as close to elements of the Syrian opposition.

The forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had been able to maintain control over the airport and its surrounding areas despite losing 20 fighters. At least 15 militants were killed.

Although the Observatory was awaiting confirmation on the identity of the attackers, Abdel Rahman told AFP they were likely to have been from the Islamic State (IS) group.

Khalkhalah airport lies along a major highway that links the regime-held provincial capital of Sweida to Damascus.

"The area is important because it's Druze and borders Damascus province," Abdel Rahman told AFP, referring to the minority sect that considers Sweida its stronghold.

"The red lines that had been in place about attacking these areas have been broken."

The regime of President Assad claims to protect Syria's minorities against foreign-backed Islamists.

But attacks on minority communities have increased with the rise of IS, which regularly targets such sects in Syria, as well as Sunnis who it alleges have violated its interpretation of Islam.

On March 25, Syrian rebels and Islamist fighters seized control of the town of Bosra al-Sham, which is south of Sweida but located along the same highway as Khalkhalah airport.

The UN estimates that some 220,000 people have been killed in Syria's four-year war.

Moscow talks collapse

Meanwhile, talks in Moscow between the Syrian government and opposition groups fell apart on Friday, with the two sides failing to agree on steps to improve trust, such as a prisoner exchange.

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, had refused to attend the Moscow talks due to mistrust of Russia's intentions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he welcomed "the agreement of more Syrian opposition forces to a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict."

But SNC leader Hisham Mroueh said Lavrov had overlooked the Assad regime's insistence on a military solution, saying Damascus had foiled all previous efforts to find a political solution to the four-year conflict.

"The policy adopted by this regime was expressed by Syrian President Bashar Assad's adviser Bouthaina Shaaban in her remarks during the Geneva II meeting, when she said that the political solution hinges on the military situation in the battlefield," he told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.

"On 12 December 2012, the coalition was recognized by over 100 countries as the sole representative of the Syrian people."