Syrian Army Launches Offensive on Damascus
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.