A fourth member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle died on Friday from wounds sustained in a bomb attack this week and his forces fought to recapture border posts and parts of Damascus from rebels targeting the heart of his power.
As many as 188 people have been killed by the fire of Syrian forces across the country, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists.
As refugees flooded across Syria’s borders and banks were reported to have run out of cash, Russia’s envoy to Paris added to a sense Assad’s days were numbered by saying he had accepted he would have to leave power.
Syrian state television flashed a government statement saying the comments were “completely devoid of truth” while Russia’s Paris embassy said they had been taken out of context.
Assad, 46, has not spoken since Wednesday’s attack on a meeting of his high command and only appeared on Thursday to appoint a new defense minister to replace one of the assassinated men.
The next few days will be critical in determining whether Assad’s government can recover from the devastating blow of the bombing of Assad’s inner circle which destroyed its aura of invulnerability.
Syrian state television said a funeral ceremony for the defense minister, his deputy – Assad’s brother-in-law -- and a senior general was held on Friday in Damascus, without mentioning whether Assad attended.
It also said Syria’s intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar had died of wounds from the attack on Assad’s close-knit six-man “crisis unit,” in charge of suppressing the 16-month uprising threatening four decades of Assad’s Alawite family rule.
In the latest violence in Damascus, rebels set fire to a military barracks which opposition sources said was used as a training ground for shabbiha militiamen loyal to Assad after a two-day siege, a witness said.
The conflict has changed from an uprising in poor towns and villages to a civil war that has reached the capital.
It has become a proxy conflict pitting Russia and Shiite Muslim Iran, which back Assad, against Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, which are arming and funding the Sunni rebels.
The rebels include the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors joined by Sunni youths, as well as al-Qaeda style Jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and local pro-democracy Sunni liberals.
Clashes raged in Damascus in a sixth day in the ancient city and at least three people were killed when Syrian army helicopters fired rockets at the southeastern neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab, opposition activists said.
Government forces and opponents are fighting with the ferocity of those who know what awaits them if they lose.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said soldiers opened fire to disperse a large demonstration in Aleppo, the country’s commercial center, without saying if there were any casualties.
Activists had pledged to stage demonstrations on Friday under the banner “the Ramadan of victory will be written in Damascus,” as rebel forces began marking the beginning of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, according to AFP.
The Observatory said worshippers had also briefly chanted slogans as they left Friday prayers at mosques in Midan, a Damascus neighborhood where the Syrian military said it had retaken control earlier today.
The Britain-based group’s director Rami Abdel Rahman said the demonstrations were small and brief.
Rebels from elsewhere in Syria have poured into the capital for what they called “Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake” saying this would be the final battle for the city. The Syrian government also said that this would be the last battle.
“The regime is going through its last days,” Abdul Basset Seyda, the leader of the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, said in Rome, predicting a dramatic escalation in violence in the 16-month-old revolt, according to Reuters.
Clashes were fiercest overnight in the sprawling Mezzeh district, where rebels appear to be sustaining attacks on many security compounds located there, residents said.
State television said Syrian forces had cleared the central district of Midan of “mercenaries and terrorists.” Opposition activists and rebels sources confirmed on Friday that they had withdrawn after coming under heavy bombardment.
“It is a tactical withdrawal. We are still in Damascus,” Abu Omar, a rebel commander, said by telephone.
Adding to the sense of crisis, power in many parts of the city had been cut as temperatures rose to above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) on Friday.
Residents in central Damascus said shops were closed, roads were empty and only a handful of people were outside. The normally heavy traffic of the cramped Middle Eastern city was missing; only a few cars were moving along its boulevards
“We have heard reports that many of the banks have just run out of money,” Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman for the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR, told a briefing in Geneva.
Residents reported a lack of government checkpoints in the heart of the city and fewer guards in front of the Interior Ministry a day after the police headquarters was burned down.
Another Syrian general fled to Turkey overnight, along with four colonels and 17 lower-ranking officers, a Turkish official said, bringing the number of generals sheltering there to 22.
Government forces struck the rebel-held Bab al-Hawa border post on the frontier with Turkey overnight and shelled the city of Abu Kamal near the main checkpoint on the border with Iraq which was seized by rebels on Thursday, the Observatory said.
On Friday, the Iraqi army erected blast walls to seal the Abu Kamal/Qaim border crossing, which is on the Euphrates River highway, one of the major trade routes across the Middle East, a Reuters photographer reported from the scene.
The Syrian side had been burned and looted and a senior Iraqi interior ministry official said it appeared to be in rebel hands. Iraqi officers said it was quiet after clashes overnight.
Other border posts further north, near the Iraqi city of Mosul, appeared to still be under Syrian government army control, Lieutenant-General Ahmed al-Khafaji told Reuters.
Rebels said they were still in control of Bab al-Hawa and the Turkish official said the rebels held Jarablus. He said the crossings were not closed but the Turkish border guards were warning people they were unsafe and they were turning back.