Syrian regime forces battled armed rebels in Damascus for the second day running on Monday, in the clearest sign yet of the16-month old conflict’s tightening grip on the capital.
Residents said plumes of smoke rose over the city as President Bashar al-Assad’s government deployed armoured vehicles and raised security on roads, including a brief closure of the airport highway.
The clashes – which came as Russia again rebuffed calls to raise the international pressure on Mr Assad - underscore how violence once confined to long-rebellious poor suburbs of Damascus has crept ever closer to the heart of the regime.
Syrian regime armoured vehicles headed for southern Damascus in the area around the Tadamon district on Monday, residents said, amid the latest in a series of battles close to the city centre over the past few weeks. One Damascene said that while life continued as normal in some areas south Damascus was now “under fire”, after the regime had shelled the city’s northern suburbs late last month and earlier this.
“Since last year…I have seen the civil war coming,” she said. “But I haven’t been so scared and worried like now.”
Further clashes were reported in the Kafar Sousah area and the central district of Midan, whose warren-like streets have long been a hotbed of opposition to the Assad family’s 40-year rule of Syria. In a video posted on YouTube, Mohamad Sillu, a defected general who is now part of the leadership of the rebel Free Syrian Army said: “I say to the regime, Damascus we are coming, and we will relegate Bashar and his regime to the dustbin of history.”
In a further twist in the battle for the capital, al-Arabiya television reported the defection of a man claiming to be the brother in law of Rustom Ghazale, a powerful regime figure who is the head of military intelligence for Damascus and its suburbs. Mr Ghazale, who was effectively the governor of Lebanon until Syrian troops were forced out in 2005, denied members of his family had defected.
Analysts say that – while opposition fighters are clearly showing an ever-greater capacity to launch operations in Damascus – there are still no signs they can hold territory there against the much more heavily-armed regime. It is possible that some or all of the intensified conflict is being driven not by rebel offensives, but by efforts of the government, which says it is facing an insurrection by armed terrorist gangs, to push them out as it has done elsewhere by bombarding residential areas.
The clashes may also indicate that rebel fighters expelled from the suburbs by government shelling have simply moved their activities elsewhere in the city.
As the violence raged, Russia served notice that it would reject efforts to impose UN sanctions on the Assad regime, a crucial ally in the Middle East, even as Kofi Annan, international peace envoy to Syria, travelled to Moscow in his latest effort to end the international diplomatic deadlock. Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, attacked what he described as “elements of blackmail” in western attempts to make renewal of the faltering UN Syrian peace mission’s mandate conditional on threatening sanctions against Mr Assad if he didn’t comply with an international peace plan.
The United Nations security council must decide by Friday whether to extend the mission in Syria, where 17,000 people are estimated to have died since the uprising began in March last year. A three-month old ceasefire has been routinely breached by both sides, while the government has ridden roughshod over a peace plan provision for it to withdraw its heavy weapons from urban areas.