x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Syrian troops push back in see-saw fight for city

The ebb and flow of the conflict in and around Damascus, with rebels and government forces battling along porous front lines that are often in a state of uneasy calm, makes charting the struggle for the city difficult.

The Assad regime hit back against rebels by shelling the capital yesterday. In Aleppo, a woman cries holding her injured son in a taxi as they arrive at a hospital following shelling by government forces. Fighting was also reported in Safireh in the north.
The Assad regime hit back against rebels by shelling the capital yesterday. In Aleppo, a woman cries holding her injured son in a taxi as they arrive at a hospital following shelling by government forces. Fighting was also reported in Safireh in the north.

Damascus // Regime troops pushed back against rebels around Damascus yesterday, after a week in which fighting inched closer to the centre of the capital.

The ebb and flow of the conflict in and around Damascus, with rebels and government forces battling along porous front lines that are often in a state of uneasy calm, makes charting the struggle for the city difficult.

But after rebel forces appeared on Wednesday to have pushed further into Jobar and Zamalka - a short distance from the landmark Abbasid square - government troops seem to have stopped any further advances, at least for the moment.

"There has been much exaggerated talk about the battle for Damascus now starting, but the army has been expecting this and has prepared for this," said an army officer in the capital.

Although "months" of fighting lay ahead, he added: "Anyone who thinks the army cannot hold this city against these terrorists is very wrong."

Opposition activists say the recent upsurge in fighting is not part of a final assault on the capital, but a gradual advance designed to increase pressure on the president, Bashar Al Assad.

"Street by street, the rebels are taking over more areas. There are plenty of places now in Damascus which are held by the rebels and which are no-go areas for regime troops," said one activist.

Many other places were not securely held by the rebels or the regime, he said, a fact he believed hurt the government's image so close to the seat of its power.

"The regime cannot say it is in full control of the capital because everyone in Damascus knows that at any moment, any area can be hit. That is the reality we all live with now," the activist said.

Government forces yesterday shelled neighbourhoods in the south of the city - something that happens as a matter of almost daily routine now.

And to the east, air strikes and artillery barrages were reported in several districts.

Major routes into and out of the city are frequently closed because of the clashes.

The activist said rebels had networks that bypassed the proliferation of checkpoints that have carved up Damascus and choked its entrances.

"I wouldn't say the situation is easy, but the rebels are confident and they are getting more supplies through than they used to and they are organising themselves better than before," he said.

Syrian authorities say they are fighting a war against foreign-backed Islamist extremists, not facing a popular revolt that took up arms in the face of a violent security crackdown.

The Nusra Front, a Islamist rebel group, killed seven Syrian soldiers at a checkpoint in the northern city of Safireh yesterday, after losing more than 100 men in the area over the past 72 hours, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"At least 112 rebels have been killed since Wednesday in fighting with troops between Safireh and the town of Khanasir," the Britain-based Observatory said.

On Thursday, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said Mr Al Assad's reaction to the initial peaceful protests was responsible for the increasing violence.

"He has been continuously killing, and he has not been listening to his own people. That's why people, out of frustration, out of anger, they have been fighting against their own government," the UN chief said.

But a small minority of those fighting to overthrow the regime are foreigners and late on Thursday, Rob Bertholee, head of the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service, said he was alarmed by the growing number of Europeans joining the fight.

Mr Betrholee said hundreds of people from across Europe, and dozens from the Netherlands, had entered Syria to take part in what they believed to be a holy war.

Activists reported fighting across much of the country, including the eastern desert city of Palmyra that had, for some months, been relatively quiet and served as a place for civilians to escape violence in Homs.

More than 60,000 people have been killed so far, according to the UN, and the vast humanitarian costs continue to mount.

The Observatory said a bombing near the central city of Hama on Wednesday had killed 56 people, most of them civilian workers at a military factory.

The UN's refugee agency said yesterday that 5,000 people were leaving Syria for neighbouring states each day, with the total number of refugees having increased by 25 per cent in the last month.

Most of those displaced by the crisis remain inside Syria, often without access to adequate shelter, fuel, food or clean water.

Also yesterday, the Turkish finance minister Mehmet Simsek announced that Ankara had spent US$600 million (Dh2.3 billion) on sheltering refugees since the start of the uprising in March 2011.

 

psands@thenational.ae