SYRIAN president Bashar al-Assad’s grip on his capital is under serious challenge, with government warplanes flying repeated bombing runs on the southern edge of Damascus in an attempt to push back rebel forces who are fighting with better equipment and greater intent than ever before.
MiG fighter jets hit the suburb of Daraya yesterday, a major opposition centre of the 20-month revolt situated amid farmland near the main southern highway, where rebels have been battling elite Republican Guard units.
The pro-government al-Ekhbariya television station said the army had begun a campaign to “cleanse” Daraya of what it described as terrorists, and showed troops on the edge of the town, where activists reported 23 people killed in two days.
But rebels and activists suggested that Mr Assad’s forces were finding it much harder to dislodge the rebels than when they last entered the suburb in August.
After months of slow progress, the rebels have in the last few weeks captured several army positions on the outskirts of Damascus and outlying regions, including a special forces base near Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub, and an air defence position near the southern gate of the capital, according to activists, video footage and diplomats following the military situation.
Mr Assad’s opponents are also gaining some support internationally as a newly formed coalition of opposition and rebel groups seeks recognition as the legitimate voice of the Syrian people, with Britain becoming the ninth country to grant it such status.
Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute in London said the developments of the last few weeks were shifting the balance in favour of the rebels. “The use of the world ‘stalemate’ to describe the conflict may no longer be appropriate,” he said. “The rebels have moved up the ladder of warfare.”
A major offensive to oust Free Syrian Army fighters from Daraya in August killed 1,000 people after rebels took over the town, established a local administration and began attacking loyalist targets in Damascus, according to opposition sources.
But there were suggestions that the latest fight for the suburb might be following a different course. “The military picture seems to have changed since August. The regime is sending troops under tank and air cover but they have not really advanced into Daraya,” said Abu Kinan, an opposition activist who is still in the town.
“Last time, the rebels made a decision to withdraw after the army’s bombing killed a large number of civilians.
“There are civilians left in Daraya, but the bulk had fled and the fighters are holding their ground.”