Syrian forces opened up a new front against rebels in and around Damascus on Monday, targeting key eastern anti-regime areas, activists said, after waging a bloody onslaught in the southwest last week.
“The army is focusing its operations on the east of Damascus,” a rebel commander who identified himself only as Selim told AFP. “Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army is trying to shift the battle back into Damascus.”
The increasing brutal conflict, which had been largely concentrated in the provinces, first hit Damascus with a vengeance last month when fierce battles erupted across the southern belt of the capital.
The fighting triggered a major offensive by government troops on districts seized by rebels before the army claimed to have the city back under its control on August 4.
Rebels have since used hit-and-run tactics in the capital, waging what analysts have described as urban guerrilla warfare against the militarily superior but thinly stretched army.
Selim said that after launching a major offensive on the southwestern belt last week, including the “massacre” town of Daraya, the army’s new focus is the Ghuta area in the countryside east of Damascus.
Ghuta is home to some of the fiercest and best organized rebel groups, Selim said, including one behind a Damascus bomb attack last month that killed four top security chiefs, including defense minister Daoud Rajha and Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, in a major blow to the regime.
“Effectively the army is going from west to east around Damascus, while we are trying to get back into the city, this time in a more organized way,” he said.
Syrian opposition fighters on Monday claimed they downed a helicopter in Damascus belonging to regime forces.
Also in the east of Damascus, the rebels attacked several army checkpoints, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“They also killed at least six soldiers and left at least 10 wounded in a blast against a military vehicle in the Ghuta area,” it said.
The escalation in eastern Damascus comes after the Observatory said at least 334 people were killed in a ferocious five-day onslaught of shelling, summary executions and door-to-door raids in Daraya.
The Sunni Muslim town was part of a major new assault on the southwest to try to crush the insurgency both in the city and the countryside used by rebels as rear bases, by cutting of their supply lines, opposition militants said.
In Syria’s other key battleground in the north, regime forces pounded the Izaa district in Aleppo, the Observatory said, adding that 39 people had been killed nationwide on Monday.
“Regime forces are trying to take control of the district,” it said, while state television claimed the army has “cleansed” the neighborhood.
The army was also bombarding several besieged districts in the central city of Homs, which has faced near constant shelling for more than two months, the Observatory said.
“The bombing is so violent, whole areas are being destroyed, yet nobody cares about Homs any more,” said an activist in the rebel-held Old City neighborhood.
Death toll and refugees
The opposition group, Syrian Revolution General Commission, said on Monday that around 101 people have been killed by the security forces across the country.
Meanwhile, a Turkish diplomat told AFP that some 9,000 Syrian refugees have massed on the country’s northwest border with Turkey, waiting for more camps to be set up to accommodate those fleeing the fighting in Syria.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the diplomat said that “6,000 refugees are waiting on the Syrian side of the Oncupinar border crossing in Kilis province, and 3,000 others at border crossings into Hatay province.”
Turkey has housed more than 80,000 refugees in camps along the border but these camps cannot take the new influx from the latest fighting.
“What’s going on is not the closure of the border,” another Turkish official told AFP. “This is not even under consideration.”
“We are facing a large influx and the ID controls and security measures at the border are slowing the entries to a large extent,” said the official.
The problem also stems from lack of space in Turkey to accommodate mass arrivals. The official said three more camps would be set up in Adiyaman, Gaziantep and Osmaniye provinces, further inside the country than hitherto, to shelter newcomers.
The exodus of refugees to Turkey has intensified this month as a result of a Syrian army offensive and fighting in the northern city of Aleppo.