The offensive launched yesterday aims to break a stalemate in the city of two million people, where artillery and air strikes have prevented opposition fighters entrenched to the east from advancing despite their capture of army fortifications, the activists said.
“We have moved the battle to Jobar,” said Captain Islam Alloush of the rebel Islam Brigade, referring to a district which links rebel strongholds in the eastern suburbs with the central Abbasid Square.
Assad, battling to crush a 22-month-old uprising in which 60,000 people have died, has lost control of large parts of the country but his forces, backed by air power, have so far kept rebels on the fringes of the capital.
State media and pro-Assad websites said rebel fighters were pushed back from Jobar and other parts of the Ghouta area of eastern Damascus.
However, rebels – seemingly equipped with new supplies of weapons and ammunition – said they had made significant gains.
“Parts of the Damascus ringroad fell to us today. The road has been effectively the last remaining barrier between the Ghouta and the city,” said Abu Ghazi, a rebel commander based in the eastern suburb of Irbeen.
“I don’t want to give people false hopes but I think if street fighting reaches central Damascus the regime will not be able to quell it this time,” he added.
“There is a new strategy, brigades are united. What is happening in the field is huge but it is a preparation for bigger operations,” said Abu Moaz al-Agha, a leader and spokesman of the Gathering of Ansar al-Islam, which includes many Islamist brigades.