Syrian army launches offensive on Damascus
BEIRUT (AP) – In dozens of tanks and armored vehicles, Syrian troops stormed rebellious areas near the capital Sunday, shelling neighborhoods that have fallen under the control of army dissidents and clashing with fighters. At least 62 people were killed in violence nationwide, activists and residents said.
The widescale offensive near the capital suggested the regime is worried that military defectors could close in on Damascus, which has remained relatively quiet while most other Syrian cities descended into chaos after the uprising began in March.
The rising bloodshed added urgency to Arab and Western diplomatic efforts to end the 10-month conflict.
STORY: Arab League halts observer mission in Syria
STORY: Syria: Crackdown on protesters will continue
The violence has gradually approached the capital. In the past two weeks, army dissidents have become more visible, seizing several suburbs on the eastern edge of Damascus and setting up checkpoints where masked men wearing military attire and wielding assault rifles stop motorists and protect anti-regime protests.
Their presence so close to the capital is astonishing in tightly controlled Syria and suggests the Assad regime may either be losing control or setting up a trap for the fighters before going on the offensive.
Residents of Damascus reported hearing clashes in the nearby suburbs, particularly at night, shattering the city's calm.
"The current battles taking place in and around Damascus may not yet lead to the unraveling of the regime, but the illusion of normalcy that the Assads have sought hard to maintain in the capital since the beginning of the revolution has surely unraveled," said Ammar Abdulhamid, a U.S.-based Syrian dissident.
"Once illusions unravel, reality soon follows," he wrote in his blog Sunday.
Soldiers riding some 50 tanks and dozens of armored vehicles stormed a belt of suburbs and villages on the eastern outskirts of Damascus known as al-Ghouta Sunday, a predominantly Sunni Muslim agricultural area where large anti-regime protests have been held.
Some of the fighting on Sunday was less than three miles (four kilometers) from Damascus, in Ein Tarma, making it the closest yet to the capital.
"There are heavy clashes going on in all of the Damascus suburbs," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who relies on a network of activists on the ground. "Troops were able to enter some areas but are still facing stiff resistance in others."
The fighting using mortars and machine guns sent entire families fleeing, some of them on foot carrying bags of belongings, to the capital.
"The shelling and bullets have not stopped since yesterday," said a man who left his home in Ein Tarma with his family Sunday. "It's terrifying, there's no electricity or water, it's a real war," he said by telephone on condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals.
The uprising against Assad, which began with largely peaceful demonstrations, has grown increasingly militarized recently as more frustrated protesters and army defectors have taken up arms.
In a bid to stamp out resistance in the capital's outskirts, the military has responded with a withering assault on a string of suburbs, leading to a spike in violence that has killed at least 150 people since Thursday.
The United Nations says at least 5,400 people have been killed in the 10 months of violence.
The U.N. is holding talks on a new resolution on Syria and next week will discuss an Arab League peace plan aimed at ending the crisis. But the initiatives face two major obstacles: Damascus' rejection of an Arab plan that it says impinges on its sovereignty, and Russia's willingness to use its U.N. Security Council veto to protect Syria from sanctions.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told reporters Sunday in Egypt that contacts were under way with China and Russia.
"I hope that their stand will be adjusted in line with the final drafting of the draft resolution," he told reporters before leaving for New York with Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim.
The two will seek U.N. support for the latest Arab plan to end Syria's crisis. The plan calls for a two-month transition to a unity government, with Assad giving his vice president full powers to work with the proposed government.
Because of the escalating violence, the Arab League on Saturday halted the work of its observer mission in Syria at least until the League's council can meet. Arab foreign ministers were to meet Sunday in Cairo to discuss the Syrian crisis in light of the suspension of the observers' work and Damascus' refusal to agree to the transition timetable, the League said.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said he was "concerned" about the League's decision to suspend its monitoring mission and called on Assad to "immediately stop the bloodshed." He spoke Sunday at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa.
While the international community scrambles to find a resolution to the crisis, the violence on the ground in Syria has continued unabated.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 27 civilians were killed Sunday in Syria, most of them in fighting in the Damascus suburbs and in the central city of Homs, a hotbed of anti-regime protests. Twenty-six soldiers and nine defectors were also killed, it said. The soldiers were killed in ambushes that targeted military vehicles near the capital and in the northern province of Idlib.
The Local Coordination Committees' activist network said 50 people were killed Sunday, including 13 who were killed in the suburbs of the capital and two defectors. That count excluded soldiers killed Sunday.
The differing counts could not be reconciled, and the reports could not be independently confirmed. Syrian authorities keep tight control on the media and have banned many foreign journalists from entering the country.
Syria's state-run news agency said "terrorists" detonated a roadside bomb by remote control near a bus carrying soldiers in the Damascus suburb of Sahnaya, killing six soldiers and wounding six others. Among those killed in the attack some 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of the capital were two first lieutenants, SANA said.
In Irbil, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq, about 200 members of Syria's Kurdish parties were holding two days of meetings to explore ways of supporting efforts to topple Assad.
Abdul-Baqi Youssef, a member of the Syrian Kurdish Union Party, said representatives of 11 Kurdish parties formed the Syrian Kurdish National Council that will coordinate anti-government activities with Syria's opposition.
Kurds make up 15 percent of Syria's 23 million people and have long complained of discrimination.
JANUARY 29, 2012, 1:35 P.M. ET
Syria Military Moves to Defend Capital
Syria's government moved to defend the capital, the seat of President Bashar al-Assad's power, as its military fought rebel troops around Damascus for a third day on Sunday and activists reported significant military deployment across the city.
Rounds of fighting rocked at least four suburbs for most of the day, residents and activists said. In Douma, a suburb some 15 kilometers (9 miles) away from Damascus, armed fighters nestled control back from the military, while government forces broke a cease-fire they had agreed to last week in Zabadani, the first Damascus suburb to slip out of government control.
The sustained fighting appeared to indicate the government struggling to maintain control of some areas in the belt around Syria's largest city, 11 months into a conflict in which military and security forces had repeatedly crushed protests—and a gradually militarized opposition movement—in cities across the country.
It came amid a surge in confidence by armed opposition fighters loosely grouped under the dissident Free Syrian Army. These fighters say they have obtained effective antitank missiles and are using guerrilla tactics to fight troops from elite military divisions reserved to defend the capital and the president. The intensified fighting has caused dozens of deaths in the Damascus suburbs over the past two days.
The Arab League on Saturday suspended its monitoring mission in Syria, citing a spike in violence that hampered the missions' work. One activist group, the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union, on Sunday said some 1,151 people have been killed since the monitors were deployed in the country in mid-December.
"We can finally say the military balance is starting to shift in our favor," a senior commander with the dissident army, stationed near Syria's border with Lebanon, said.
In a show of force by the armed opposition, dissident troops said they were positioned in a suburb no more than eight kilometers away from the presidential palace in Damascus. Their accounts cannot be independently verified, but residents of two suburbs some six kilometers away from the center of Damascus's old city confirmed opposition fighters continued to fight the army into Sunday night.
While activists also reported tanks guarding central squares across Damascus and the sounds of shooting and explosions near the city center, residents in nearby parts of the capital said the streets appeared to be calm. "We are all on edge, and that's because we know the route the government has decided to take and now know that they're going to be facing tough resistance," one resident said by telephone.
A diplomat in Damascus said there was no fighting, or heightened military or security deployment, in the city's center. "There's certainly a lot of anticipation of an intense potential of military activity across the city, but nothing has cut into the center yet," the diplomat said.
Syria's government last week said it wouldn't give up a military campaign it has said is rooting out armed terrorists.
Many activists in Syria's besieged cities of Homs, Hama, and Deraa—early opposition strongholds in Syria's nearly year-long uprising—said they feared they had become sidelined in what they described as a clear war between the military and the dissident Free Syrian Army.
Write to Nour Malas at email@example.com