BEIRUT: After five weeks of battle, Syrian government troops captured a strategic town near Damascus, cutting an arms route for rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime, state media and activists said Thursday.
By taking the town of Otaybah, east of the capital, the army dealt a major setback to opposition forces that in recent months have made gains near the city they eventually hope to storm.
Also Thursday, the White House and other top Obama administration officials said that U.S. intelligence has concluded with “varying degrees of confidence” that the Syrian government has twice used chemical weapons in the civil war, which has dragged on for two years.
However, officials also said more definitive proof was needed and the U.S. was not ready to escalate its involvement in Syria beyond non-lethal aid despite President Barack Obama’s repeated public assertions that Syria’s use of chemical weapons, or the transfer of its stockpiles to a terrorist group, would cross a “red line.”
Syria’s main Western-backed opposition promptly called on the international community to act “urgently and decisively.” The opposition’s statement said: “Failure to act will be seen by the regime as encouragement to use chemical weapons on a larger scale in the future.”
Ahmad Ramadan, a member of the Syrian National Coalition opposition group’s executive body, called the U.S. assertion an “important step” that should be followed by actual measures.
“The U.S. has a moral duty to act ... we are waiting for the next steps,” he told the Associated Press by phone from Istanbul.
The Syrian conflict began with largely peaceful protests against the Assad regime in March 2011, but eventually turned into a full-scale civil war. The fighting has exacted a huge toll on the country, killing an estimated 70,000 people and laying waste to cities, towns and villages.
With fresh supplies of weapons from foreign backers, the rebels have recently seized military bases and towns south of the capital in the strategically important region between Damascus and the border with Jordan, about 100 miles away.
The regime has largely kept the rebels at bay in Damascus, although opposition fighters control several suburbs of the capital from which they have threatened the heart of the city, the seat of Assad’s power.
Last month, government troops launched a campaign to repel the opposition’s advances near the capital, deploying elite army units to the rebellious suburbs and pounding rebel positions with airstrikes.
State-run SANA news agency said Thursday that the army has “restored complete control” over Otaybah. The official news services also said Assad’s troops “discovered a number of tunnels which were used by terrorists to move and transfer weapons and ammunitions.”