Middle East

Assad forces step up defense of Damascus

A rebel traverses a 30-meter tunnel under an area where Syrian army forces have set up base in Deir al-Zor, according to members of the Free Syrian Army.

BEIRUT: Following several weeks of strategic rebel gains in the south, Syria’s government forces made a concerted push to defend the capital, announcing Sunday that they had repelled the rebels from the Damascus province of Eastern Ghouta.

The army said the “special operation” resulted in the “area coming under [our] control,” according to the state news agency SANA, but the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel-Rahman, said many villages and towns were still run by rebels.

Eastern Ghouta has been one of the tensest areas in Syria over the past year, with daily clashes and shelling between troops and rebels.

Rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad have been making gains in recent weeks, especially in the south near the Jordanian border. They have seized military bases and towns in the strategically important region between Damascus and the border with Jordan, about 160 kilometers away.

Last week, they looked poised to take over the area along the Jordanian border, which could be used to try to stage an attack on Damascus, Assad’s seat of power.

Some rebel factions are also receiving heavier flows of weapons through Jordan as well as training there by the U.S. and other countries.

The government’s defense of Eastern Ghouta comes as part of a wider attempt to contain rebel forces that hold swaths of Damascus’ suburbs but have yet to hold any significant more central territory.

According to the opposition-aligned Observatory, a car bomb exploded in central Abasiyyin Square of Damascus, indicating that despite government efforts, violence was creeping toward the heart of Assad’s powerbase.

In the north, the main rebel stronghold, government troops have also been chipping away slowly over the past weeks at rebel gains around the city of Aleppo, the country’s main commercial hub. They have been hammering rebel-held districts inside the city with fighter jets and artillery, sowing fear among residents.

Government troops recaptured Saturday the village of Aziza on a strategic road that links Aleppo with its airport and military bases, activists said. Rebels have been trying to capture that airport and the nearby bases for months now.

The regime seized back the village southeast of Aleppo after a 10-day battle, Abdel-Rahman said Sunday.

“It’s a setback for the rebels because the village is an important strategic point from which the army can shell [opposition] positions all around the area,” he added.

Aziza is one in a string of settlements along the Aleppo airport road that government troops have taken back.

It’s also an outpost from which the army will be able to protect its convoys traveling the highway to ferry supplies to its bases at the airport.

Further airstrikes Sunday targeted Aleppo, the central cities of Homs and Hama and the city of Idlib in the north near the Turkish border. The western city of Latakia, and the eastern province of Deir al-Zor were also shelled.

The Aleppo strike was the deadliest air raid Sunday, killing up to 12 people, according to the Local Coordination Committees, another anti-regime activists group.

Anti-government activists in Aleppo posted videos online, showing the aftermath of a Saturday airstrike on what they say is Sukkari district in the northern city. Dozens of residents are standing on piles of rubble in front of a row of residential buildings, looking in disbelief at the front of the building that was blown off when a missile slammed into it. State television said the primary goal of the airstrikes was to “recapture areas taken by the terrorists,” the term the regime uses to refer to opposition fighters in the civil war.

Regime fighter jets pounded villages in rebel-held areas in Latakia province before. But they do not frequently hit the city of the same name that is mostly populated with Syrian minority communities, including many members of the Alawite sect that Assad and his family belong to.

In other violence, a man was shot and killed by an army sniper in the southern city of Deraa, the Observatory said

In Istanbul, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on the first leg of a 10-day overseas trip. They discussed shared U.S. and Turkish efforts to support Syria’s opposition groups, which have struggled to unify and strengthen links with rebels on the battlefield.

“The United States and Turkey will continue cooperating toward the shared goal of a peaceful transition in Syria,” Kerry said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 08, 2013, on page 1.




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