Government forces bombarded rebel districts near Damascus yesterday in a sustained counterattack to stem rebel gains around Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s power base.
The fighting around Damascus has led foreign airlines to suspend flights and prompted the UN and EU to reduce their presence in the capital, adding to a sense that the fight is closing in.
The army fightback came a day after a foreign ministry spokesman was reported to have defected in a potentially embarrassing blow to the government.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 200 people were killed across Syria on Monday, more than 60 of them around Damascus. Al-Assad’s forces bombarded districts to the southeast of the capital yesterday, near the international airport, and in the rebel bastion of Daraya to the southwest.
The mainly Sunni Muslim rebel forces have made advances in recent weeks, seizing military bases, including some close to Damascus, from forces loyal to al-Assad, who is from Syria’s Alawite minority linked to Shiite Islam.
Faced with creeping rebel gains across the north and east of the country, and the growing challenge around the capital, al-Assad has increasingly resorted to air strikes against the insurgents.
Amid talk that troops had also moved chemical weapons, US President Barack Obama again warned al-Assad against using them.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry said on Monday it would never use chemical weapons against Syrians. The statement was issued by an unnamed ministry source after the disappearance of spokesman Jihad Makdissi.
A diplomat in the Middle East said Makdissi had left the country and defected, while the British-based observatory said it had information that he flew from Beirut to London on Monday afternoon.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said US concerns about Syria’s intentions regarding the use of chemical weapons were increasing, prompting Washington to make contingency plans.
“The world is watching,” Obama said.
“The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable, and if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons there will be consequences and you will be held accountable,” he said.