DAMASCUS // A violent year in Syria came to a close yesterday with more bloodshed, including unconfirmed reports of fresh atrocities, heavy fighting on the outskirts of capital and warnings that the 22-month war of attrition between the government and rebels was transforming the country into a failed state.
Reinforced armoured units from the elite 4th Division launched a renewed assault on Daraya, on the southern fringe of Damascus, an area that has developed into a key battleground as rebels seek to put pressure on president Bashar Al Assad in the heart of the capital.
Government forces have been trying to retake Daraya, a rebel stronghold, for the past 45 days, with air strikes and shelling there commonplace. But activists said yesterday's attacks were among the fiercest.
Throughout the day, artillery and rocket fire hit the town, once home to some 200,000 people, mainly middle-class Sunni Muslims but also Christians. Most of the residents have fled to safer neighbouring suburbs, many enduring the winter's cold in unheated, unfinished buildings.
Sana, the state run news agency, quoted the army general command as saying troops were continuing to "clear" Daraya and had destroyed a "terrorist base and killed huge numbers of terrorists".
General command headquarters, in a heavily defended central area of Damascus, was attacked by the opposition Nusra Front in September, and remains gutted.
The Islamist group, containing many foreign fighters, has become one of the most effective fighting rebel units in the war, to the consternation of western states backing the opposition as it seeks to overthrow Mr Al Assad.
The United States has classified the Nusra Front a terrorist organisation and affiliate of Al Qaeda - a rare point of agreement between Washington and Damascus.
The army general command's statement, published yesterday, referenced fighting in the northern city of Aleppo, where rebels have been stubbornly facing regime forces since July. It said troops had defeated an attack by the Nusra Front and "Nato mercenaries" against an air defence battalion.
Activists also reported finding mutilated corpses in Barzeh, a neighbourhood in northern Damascus that was among the first to take part in anti-regime protests when the uprising began in March 2011.
"Thirty bodies were found in the Barzeh district. They bore signs of torture and have so far not been identified," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SHOR), one of the main groups tracking casualties.
Underlining the sharply deteriorating situation, SOHR said almost 90 per cent of the 45,000-plus people it had documented as killed since the start of the uprising had died in 2012.
The overwhelming majority are civilians it said, cautioning that the real number of killed could be as high as 100,000 because the government and rebels downplayed their losses, and tens of thousands of people remained missing.
As violence has intensified, UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has stepped up thus far fruitless diplomatic efforts to end the conflict. On Sunday he claimed to have put together a ceasefire plan that, he said, could be accepted by world powers.
"I have discussed this plan with Russia and Syria ... I think this proposal could be adopted by the international community," Mr Brahimi said.
"There is a proposal for a political solution based on the Geneva declaration foreseeing a ceasefire, forming a government with complete prerogatives and a plan for parliamentary and presidential elections," he said.
It remains unclear how the UN-brokered deal struck in Geneva in June, could now be implemented given that there appears to be no agreement as to what it actually entails.
The US has said the plan requires Mr Al Assad to stand aside, while Russia, the Syrian president's main ally, says it contains no such clause.
Mr Brahimi has said he hopes a deal can be finalised and put in place early this year, warning that failure to find a political solution to the Syria crisis will see the country turn into a bloody, lawless state run by warlords.
Despite his remarks that a plan acceptable to Damascus and its ally Moscow may now have been drafted, Mr Brahimi did acknowledge that the two main protagonists in the conflict - the Syrian regime and an opposition coalition seeking its downfall - were in no mood to compromise.
"The problem is that both sides are not speaking to one another, and are speaking across of one another, and this is where help is needed from the outside, to make sure that everybody speaks about the same thing," he said at a news conference in Cairo on Sunday.
And the major sticking point - the future of Mr Al Assad himself - remains unresolved. The opposition has said he must go as a precondition to any negotiations about a transition to democracy, while Mr Al Assad's supporters, both at home and abroad, say he will not stand down.
A growing number of opposition sympathisers have accused Mr Brahimi of working to salvage Mr Al Assad's regime.
Also yesterday, Sana reported a gas pipeline in eastern Syria had been blown up by militants, something it said would further disrupt electricity supplies.
Power cuts are routine in Syria now, as are shortages in fuel and food. The UN has estimated 4 million Syrians, many of them displaced from their homes by fighting, are now in need of emergency aid.
Syrian prime minister, Wael Al Halqi, yesterday blamed international sanctions for the harsh conditions in the country, saying they had "caused huge damage to the national economy".
He promised diesel, widely used by Syrians for winter heating, would soon be more widely available.
* With additional reports from AP and the Agence-France Presse