Syrian government forces backed by helicopter gunships engaged in heavy clashes with rebels in Damascus, a clear escalation of the fighting in the capital since the uprising began last year, activists said. The fierce clashes, which have raged over the past three days in at least four neighborhoods across the city, were the latest sign that Syria’s conflict is fast descending into a civil war that is moving ever closer to the heart of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Government forces have already thrown tanks and armored personnel carriers into the fight in the capital, but the use of airpower reflected the intensity and seriousness of the clashes.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Damascus-based activist Maath al-Shami said the fighting yesterday was concentrated in Kfar Souseh, Nahr Aisha, Midan and Qadam.
The clashes are the most sustained and widespread in the capital since the start of the uprising against al-Assad in March last year and a crackdown that activists say has claimed the lives of more than 17,000 people. In the past, clashes happened at night in the capital. Now, the fighting rages during the day.
Damascus — and Syria’s largest city, Aleppo — are both home to elites who have benefited from close ties to al-Assad’s regime, as well as merchant classes and minority groups who worry their status will suffer if al-Assad falls.
As the violence has spiraled out of control, diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed have faltered, with world powers still deeply divided over who is responsible and how to stop the fighting.
The US and many Western nations have called on al-Assad to stand down, while Russia, China and Iran have stood by the regime.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in China yesterday as part of a diplomatic push to get Russia and China to back a tougher response to attacks by al-Assad’s regime. Ban’s trip came ahead of a UN Security Council vote this week. A Western-backed resolution calls for sanctions and invokes Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. A Chapter 7 resolution authorizes actions that can ultimately include the use of military force, which US administration and European officials — for now — are playing down as a possibility.
Ban is scheduled to hold talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) today, with Syria expected to top the agenda.
UN special envoy Kofi Annan, meanwhile, was to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss the conflict.
In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast warned against foreign intervention in Syria. Iran, one of Syria’s strongest allies, offered to mediate and host a meeting between the Syrian government and rebels to help resolve the conflict.
“Iran is prepared to use all its capacities to resolve the crisis in Syria,” Mehmanparast told reporters yesterday.
The Syrian opposition is unlikely to accept Iran, which has provided al-Assad with military and political backing for years, as a mediator.
The Observatory and al-Shami said helicopters fired heavy machine guns during overnight clashes in the neighborhoods of Qadam and Hajar al-Aswad.
Another activist in the capital, who asked to be identified only as Bayan because of fear for his safety, said troops fired mortar rounds at the neighborhoods of Qaboun and Jobar, causing a major fire near Jobar’s Grand Mosque.