BEIRUT: Syria’s army ratcheted up offensives against rebel forces in opposition-held areas across the country Wednesday, warning that if fighters entered Damascus it would result in their “certain death.”
Fresh airstrikes were reported in Raqqa, the first provincial capital to fall completely to the rebels two weeks ago.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told The Daily Star there were fierce clashes between government troops and Islamist fighters around the 17th Division military base – one of several strategic areas still contested after the fall of the northern city. The Nusra Front has a strong presence among the rebel brigades in Raqqa, Abdel-Rahman added.
Amateur video filmed by activists and distributed online showed an area identified as the city’s Bedouin neighborhood reduced to rubble, as a cameraman was heard blaming an airstrike.
“Civilians have been targeted,” said the unidentified cameraman as a siren sounded. The Daily Star could not confirm the authenticity of the footage.
The fighting has escalated across Syria in recent weeks, as the rebels and the Assad regime try to gain the upper hand in the 2-year-old conflict that the U.N. says has killed over 70,000 people.
In the capital, rebel-held suburbs came under bombardment as opposition groups attempted to move into the center of the city, where President Bashar Assad and his most loyal supporters and troops are based.
The suburb of Daraya, a key rebel stronghold, was shelled repeatedly throughout the day as the regime attempted to wrench back control of the strategic southern neighborhood.
Rebels have established footholds in a number of Damascus suburbs but have only been able to push into limited areas in the southern and northeastern parts of the capital. Their only major foray into the capital that took place last July was brought to a swift end by a punishing regime counteroffensive that swept rebels from the city.
Al-Manar TV station, whose backers Hezbollah support Assad’s regime, reported that Daraya had fallen completely into government hands. However, Abdel-Rahman told The Daily Star that while government troops did hold the area surrounding Al-Sayeda Sakina shrine, the majority of the suburb remains contested.
Shelling was also reported in the suburbs of Barzeh, Jobar and Mliha, according to the Local Coordination Committees activist group, while residents said warplanes could be heard circling the neighborhoods from the center of the city.
An unidentified army commander, in an interview with the pro-government newspaper Al-Watan, said in Wednesday’s edition that if “terrorists entered the city it would result in certain death for them and their leaders.”
He went on to assure the capital’s residents that they were safe, and would remain so, due to the “experience, courage and bravery” of the army, which would defeat the “terrorists.”
The new regime push also came as Assad issued a broadside against Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claiming he had not said “a single word of truth” about Syria’s conflict thus far, in an interview with Turkish media.
In extracts from an interview with Turkey’s Ulusal Kanal channel, Assad, besides slamming Ankara, which offers crucial ideological and technical support to the Syrian opposition, criticized what he labeled as an opposition attempt to spread sectarian discord in Syria.
He condemned the killing on March 21 of pro-regime Sunni preacher Mohammad Saeed al-Bouti as part of a plan to incite “sectarian strife” in Syria.
“There is no doubt that the role of preachers, including Dr. Bouti, was key to ensuring the failure of a covert plan to create sectarian strife. That’s why they assassinated Dr. Bouti,” he said.
Assad also spoke to spoke the channel’s newspaper, Aydinlik.
Both media outlets are affiliated with Turkey’s Labor Party, which opposes Erdogan’s policies.
In the south of the country, rebels captured a military base after days of heavy fighting, activists said, in the latest advance by opposition fighters near the strategic border area with Jordan.
Opposition fighters battling Assad’s troops have been chipping away at the regime’s hold on the southern part of the country in recent weeks with the help of an influx of foreign-funded weapons.
The Observatory said the rebels seized the air defense base, home to the Syrian army’s 49th battalion, on the outskirts of the city of Deraa, the birthplace of the country’s uprising, on Wednesday after battling Assad’s troops in the area for several days. The capture follows a string of other rebel victories in the southern province of Deraa, a largely agricultural region predominantly populated by Sunnis. Last month, opposition fighters seized Dael, one of the province’s bigger towns, and overran another air defense base in the region. The Observatory said the death toll across Syria was at least 100 by sundown. – With agencies