DAMASCUS/MOSCOW: Syria’s military deployed armored vehicles near central Damascus Monday as troops battled rebels around the capital in what activists said could be a turning point in the 16-month uprising.
Russia, meanwhile, slammed as “blackmail” Western pressure to push for a U.N. Security Council resolution against Syria’s regime and said it would be “unrealistic” for its ally President Bashar Assad to quit.
“Al-Midan and Tadamon are out of the army’s control,” said Ahmad al-Khatib, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s military council in Damascus.
“The army has no presence inside either of these neighborhoods any more, though they are shelling from the outside, and clashes on the edges of the neighborhoods continue.”
As battles raged around Damascus for a second straight day, troops deployed armored vehicles near the historic neighborhood of Al-Midan.
“When there is fighting in the capital for several hours, even days, and troops are unable to control the situation, that proves the regime’s weakness,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
An activist on the ground, identifying himself as Abu Musab, said the army was trying to overrun Al-Midan and called the fighting a “turning point” in the revolt against Assad’s regime.
Activists said that the army and FSA rebels had also been locked in fierce clashes since Sunday in the southern Damascus neighborhood of Tadamon, Kfar Sousa in the west and Jobar in the east.
They said the clashes were the heaviest in the capital since the March 2011 start of the uprising.
The authorities vowed Monday they would not surrender the capital. “You will never get Damascus,” read the headline in Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the regime.
“Security forces, backed by the army, have for the past 48 hours been attacking the terrorist groups as they try to pull back to districts on the outskirts,” the paper said.
A resident of nearby Jaramana said the area was like a “war zone.”
Activists said residents were fleeing Tadamon, with many seeking shelter in the nearby Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, as the opposition Syrian National Council accused the regime of transforming Damascus into “battlefields.”
Rebel-held districts of the central city of Homs, which has been under siege for months, were bombarded Monday, according to the Observatory. It said a total of at least 67 people were killed in violence across the country – 32 civilians, 21 soldiers and 14 rebel fighters. The latest violence comes as diplomatic pressure builds up ahead of a key Security Council vote Friday to decide whether the 300-strong U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria would be renewed.
The unarmed observers are tasked with overseeing implementation of a six-point peace plan brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan which has been flouted daily since mid-April when it was to have gone into effect.
Speaking ahead of talks with Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of trying to “blackmail” Moscow to get its backing for possible sanctions against Syria.
“To our great regret, we are witnessing elements of blackmail,” said Lavrov, adding that it was “unrealistic” for Moscow to back calls for Assad to step down as the population supports him.
“It is simply unrealistic ... he will not leave power. And this is not because we are protecting him but because there is a very significant part of the Syrian population behind him.”
Lavrov said Russia would not back a resolution on the monitors being discussed by the U.N. Security Council because it contained a threat to impose sanctions if Syria did not comply with Annan’s peace plan. Russia’s draft includes no such threat.
Lavrov said any deal must follow the principles outlined at talks in Geneva on June 30 between Annan and veto-holding members of the Security Council, which Russia takes to mean it must not specifically exclude Assad.
“If our partners decide to block our resolution no matter what, then the U.N. mission will not have a mandate and will have to leave Syria. That would be a pity,” said Lavrov, whose country is one of Syria’s main arms suppliers.
Neither Lavrov nor Annan made any comments to journalists as they departed Monday after their talks.
Annan will meet President Vladimir Putin while U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon is due in Beijing Tuesday, also on a mission to get support for tougher action on Syria.
Lavrov stressed Russia’s belief in “the importance of continuing the activities of the U.N. in Syria” in a telephone conversation with Ban, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said in a statement.
Russia and China have twice blocked resolutions against Syria at the Security Council which is divided over Western calls to pile new sanctions on Damascus.
French President Francois Hollande made a new appeal to Moscow over the weekend to stop blocking peace efforts and Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero responded to Lavrov’s comments Monday by saying the next U.N. resolution “must be accompanied by the threat of sanctions.”
“The Syrian authorities must understand that the violent crimes committed cannot remain unpunished and expose them to consequences,” Valero told reporters in a daily briefing.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accused Russia and China of blocking a settlement, saying they should “get off the sidelines” and help.
The diplomatic moves come after Syria denied its troops carried out a massacre in the central village of Tremseh, where activists said dozens of people were slaughtered Thursday by troops and pro-regime militiamen.
Syria has denied there was a massacre while U.N. observers are probing the reported killings. Violence across Syria Sunday killed 105 people, the Observatory said.