Egypt's Islamist president announced Saturday that he was cutting off diplomatic relations with Syria and closing Damascus' embassy in Cairo, decisions made amid growing calls from hard-line Sunni clerics in Egypt and elsewhere to launch a "holy war" against Syria's embattled regime.
Mohammed Morsi told thousands of supporters at a rally in Cairo that his government was also withdrawing the Egyptian charge d'affaires from Damascus. He called on Lebanon's Hezbollah to leave Syria, where the Iranian-backed Shia militant group has been fighting alongside troops loyal to embattled President Bashar Assad against the mostly Sunni rebels.
"Hezbollah must leave Syria. This is serious talk: There is no business or place for Hezbollah in Syria," said Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president. Morsi's address, particularly his call on Hezbollah to leave Syria, and the fiery rhetoric used by well-known Muslim clerics this weekend point to the increasing perception of the Syrian conflict as sectarian. At least 93,000 people have been killed since turmoil there began more than two years ago.
In fighting Saturday, Syrian government forces captured the rebel-held suburb of Ahmadiyeh near the Damascus international airport two days after a mortar round landed near the airport's runway and briefly disrupted flights, according to the state news agency. SANA said government forces killed several rebels and destroyed their hideouts in the area.
Ahmadiyeh is part of a region known as Eastern Ghouta, where government forces have been on the offensive for weeks in a move aiming to secure Assad's seat of power in the capital.
A local rebel commander who identified himself only by his nickname, Abu Hareth, for fear of government reprisals, said rebels have been firing mortar shells at the airport from Ahmadiyeh area and came under attack by the regime late Friday. He said two rebel fighters have been killed.
He added that rebels destroyed three tanks in the battle, claiming that they have acquired a small number of anti-tank missiles recently.
"A large regime force is attacking the area today," Abu Hareth said via Skype on Saturday.
Air raids on edge of Damascus
Intense clashes also continued in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists around the county. It said regime forces tried to storm the northern neighborhoods of Achrafieh and Bani Zeid after heavy shelling with mortar rounds and tanks but failed to advance after facing resistance from rebels.
The city has been witnessing some of the worst violence in months in recent days.
The Observatory also reported air raids and shelling of Jobar, a key district on the edge of Damascus.
Rebels, who are outgunned by Assad's Hezbollah-backed army, have been urging the world to send sophisticated arms, particularly anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry. The West, particularly the U.S., had been reluctant to arm the rebels, in part because of concerns the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic militants with ties to al-Qaida.
The situation changed in recent months and alarm was raised after government forces with Hezbollah's help captured the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border. On Friday, Hezbollah's leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said his militants would keep fighting in Syria "wherever needed."
U.S. officials said the administration could provide the rebels with a range of weapons, including small arms, ammunition, assault rifles and a variety of anti-tank weaponry such as shoulder-fired remote-propelled grenades and other missiles.
Meanwhile, Syria's main opposition group called on Iran's new president-elect Hasan Rowhani to end his country's strong alliance with Assad, saying he should "know the mistakes of the Iranian leadership and change his country's stance before it's too late."
The Syrian National Coalition said Iranian authorities have backed "Assad's criminal regime with all political, military and economic means."