'Desperate Assad could use chemical arms'

US State Secretary Hillary Clinton says Syria’s president might use chemical weapons out of desperation.

US State Secretary Hillary Clinton says Syria’s Bashar al-Assad might use chemical weapons out of desperation.

BEIRUT - 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 defence 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 recognised 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 organiser 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 centre 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.

He said rebels captured a unit of air defence soldiers, killing and imprisoning dozens while others escaped. Syria's state news agency said the army was still firmly in control of the base, but did not respond to rebel claims that they were surrounding the area.

Accounts like this from Syria are impossible to verify, as the government has restricted media access to the country.

For several days, Western officials have repeatedly focussed on what they say is a threat that Assad could use poison gas.

After meeting other NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Clinton said: "Our concerns are that an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons, or might lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria."

"We have sent an unmistakable message that this would cross a red line and those responsible would be held to account," she added.

U.S. officials have said this week they have intelligence that Syria may be making preparations to use chemical arms.

"It looks to me as if the Syrian opposition forces have a strategy and are implementing it with some success, and appear to be bearing in on Damascus for what could be an end-game," said Nigel Inkster, ex-deputy head of Britain's MI6 spy agency, now at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"I suspect there will be those among Assad's supporters who take the view that if it comes to an existential struggle, they will have nothing to lose by unleashing CW (chemical weapons)."

Syria, which has not signed the international chemical weapons treaty banning the use of poison gas, says it would never use such weapons on its own people.