Aleppo has seen some of the worst of the recent fighting
Syrian rebels fought pitched battles Wednesday against regime forces at a military base that protects a major airport in the country's north in fighting that has left more than 40 government troops dead, opposition activists said.
Rebels have been attacking the civilian airport in the city of Aleppo for weeks, and now appear to have overrun the main defences around the facility. But the airport itself, which stopped handling any flights weeks ago because of the fighting, still remains in regime hands.
Also Wednesday, Syria's former Foreign Ministry spokesman made his first comments since disappearing in December, saying he left the country because "of the polarization and violence that left no place for moderation and diplomacy."
Jihad Makdissi, who was known for defending President Bashar Assad's regime in fluent English, said in a statement sent to the Abu-Dhabi-based Sky News Arabia that he did not go to Europe or the U.S. after leaving Syria. He did not say where he currently is, adding that "I have no secrets that anyone would want."
In his statement Wednesday, Makdissi said the Syrian uprising has "legitimate demands."
On Dec. 3, Lebanese security officials said Makdissi flew from Beirut to London. But it was not immediately clear whether he had defected, reports The Associated Press.
After Sky News Arabia posted the letter on Wednesday, Makdissi posted his first tweet on his Twitter account since Nov. 25, saying in English "I confirm authenticity of the Press Release issued today."
The fighting Aleppo's international airport came a day after opposition fighters captured large parts of the nearby "Brigade 80" base and attacked another major air base, Nairab, adjacent to the airport after taking control of the al-Manara army checkpoint just outside it.
By Wednesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels were "almost fully in control" of the "Brigade 80" base. He said more than 40 government troops were killed in the fighting, including two brigadier generals, a colonel and two lieutenant colonels. The report could not be independently confirmed.
Heavy clashes were also still raging for control of the Nairab base as well as outside the civilian airport, which both have their own defences in addition to the protection provided by Brigade 80.
Abdul-Rahman said the brigade is an air defence force that's main task is to protect the international airport and the Nairab air base.
Syria's rebels have notched several of strategic victories in recent days, capturing a military air base in the province of Aleppo on Tuesday and the country's largest dam on the Euphrates River the day before.
With the back-to-back blows to Assad's regime, opposition fighters appear to be regaining some momentum in the nearly 2-year-old conflict, expanding their northern zone of control while at the same time pushing deeper into the heart of the capital, Damascus.
Activists reported clashes outside Damascus on Wednesday, with regime warplanes hitting several of the restive suburbs as part of a government offensive to dislodge opposition fighters from their strongholds around the capital. Fighter jets also carried out airstrikes on rebel positions in the central province of Homs, the Observatory said.
The rebels have been pushing their way into Damascus since last week, and came to within a mile of the heart of the capital on Friday. The foray marks the opposition's second significant attempt to storm Damascus since July, when the rebels captured several neighbourhoods before being swept out by a swift government counteroffensive.
Since then, the regime has buckled down in Damascus, setting up checkpoint and controlling movement and out of the city with some of the government's most loyal troops. The heavily defended city so far has been spared the kind of violence that has devastated whole neighbourhoods in other major cities such as Aleppo and the central city of Homs.