Facing a growing threat on the doorstep of its capital city, the Syrian government struck out at its opponents in the rebellious eastern suburbs on Sunday, sending soldiers, tanks and armored vehicles to vanquish pockets of rebel fighters in an escalation of the spreading war.
Columns of black smoke rose from El Ghouta, and heavy clashes were reported in nearby Harasta. A resident who fled Ein Tarma told The Associated Press that electricity and water had been cut to the area during fighting that had not let up since Saturday.
Video shot in Saqba showed soldiers shadowing a tank as it rolled through streets that just days ago were controlled with some swagger by rebel fighters. Activists in Saqba said they knew of at least nine people killed in the fighting on Sunday. That toll could not be independently confirmed.
The violence was not confined to the capital’s suburbs. A rebel commander in the town of Rankous, near the Lebanese border, said several houses there were burning after a day of shelling by government tanks.
“They will pay a high price for this,” said the commander, Abu Khaled.
The government’s latest offensive came a day after the Arab League suspended a monitoring mission in Syria because of the intensifying violence, removing outside observers from around the country and in the process lifting a measure of restraint on a government intent on routing its opponents.
Arab League nations have been pushing the United Nations Security Council to endorse their plan for a political transition in Syria that calls for President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his deputy, and the formation of a unity government in advance of elections. Syria has condemned the plan, calling it foreign interference. The proposal has also run into resistance from Russia, one of Syria’s last remaining allies.
On Sunday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei V. Lavrov, gave the strongest indication yet that his country would oppose the Arab plan, saying that the insistence by Western and Arab nations that Mr. Assad give up power was “absolutely unforgiveable,” and suggesting that Russia might be willing to use its veto power to block a proposed Security Council resolution favoring it.
Mr. Lavrov, who is on a tour of Asia-Pacific nations, said at a news conference in Brunei that the demand — which makes up the core of the draft resolution — was “a rather irresponsible statement, because it attempts to undermine the chance to calm the situation,” according to remarks carried by the Russian Interfax news service.
Mr. Lavrov expressed surprise and dissatisfaction with the decision to end the Arab League monitoring mission, which he called a “useful instrument.” He has also said Russian officials planned to meet with Syrian opposition leaders in the coming days to urge them to negotiate with Mr. Assad.
“We are trying to convince these forces that dialogue is the only path to normalization,” Mr. Lavrov said, in an interview with Japanese television. “Unfortunately, several of our partners in the U.N. Security Council have taken the opposite position and are persuading the opposition not to enter a dialogue with the authorities.
“This is incitement,” he said.
The general secretary of the Arab League, Nabil al-Araby, said on Sunday that he was hopeful Russia and China would change their positions and support the resolution.
For most of Sunday, there was little sign in central Damascus on Sunday of the war unfolding within miles of the city.
Early in the day, activists referred to reports of a major military deployment under way, headed in the direction of the eastern suburbs.
Over the last month, militias of defected soldiers had gained a foothold in the area, posting fighters at the entrances to towns like Saqba to repel government incursions and protect antigovernment protests, which have persisted and grown. Syrian officials framed the advance of the fighters as a growing threat to citizens by lawless bands of armed gangs, and promised a harsh response.
On Sunday, antigovernment activists and fighters said a broad military campaign was under way, stretching from Rankous in the north to Kufr Butna and surrounding towns in the east. The violence and its aftermath was seen in videos posted by activists. The sound of gunfire coursed through a crowd in Jawbar, as protesters carried away a bloodied body. Slum dwellings in Saqba were reduced to rubble. Black smoke rose from a building in Irbeen.
The state news agency, SANA, reported an attack on the military, saying an “armed terrorist group” had blown up a bus in Sahnaya, south of Damascus, killing six soldiers.
Fighting was also reported in Homs, Hama and Aleppo, where several days of protests have started to shake a city that had remained calm for most of the 10-month-old uprising.
The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group, said security forces had attacked the northern town of Idlib on Sunday with antiaircraft guns and artillery.
On Sunday evening, a group of Arab League observers stationed in Idlib returned to Damascus, carrying the yellow vests they had worn as uniforms.
“The situation is very, very bad,” one said.