BEIRUT/AMMAN: Syrian rebels launched a major surprise offensive Sunday that brought them close to the heart of the Old City of Damascus, and government forces responded with intense bombardments of rebel-held areas.
The escalation, reported by witnesses, state TV, rebel sources and an activist group, marked a bid by the rebels to relieve army pressure on besieged areas they control to the east of the capital.
Moderate Free Syrian Army and militant groups were both involved in the assault on the districts of Jobar and Abbasiyyin, some 2 km east of the Old City walls.
“After a major advance by opposition fighters, the regime got over its shock and began a counteroffensive,” the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel-Rahman, said.
Syrian state television said the army had repelled infiltration attempts by the militants and bombarded them with artillery, inflicting heavy losses. It added, quoting a military source, that the army “tightened the noose” around the rebels in the industrial zone.
A security source said 18 Syrian soldiers died in the militant attack.
Witnesses said the army deployed tanks in some adjacent neighborhoods, and troops could be seen patrolling on foot.
“The streets are empty and the army has dispatched dozens of troops in the streets, and tanks are being moved. The sounds of mortars from Jobar have not stopped,” said a resident of the nearby Tijara district, who asked not to be named.
Another witness said most shops had closed in areas close to the fighting, as people fled further away from the clashes.
Heavy explosions rang out in the background as state TV broadcast live from Abbasiyyin Square, a usually teeming area that seemed to be deserted of traffic and pedestrians.
With the recapture of the city of Aleppo last December, President Bashar Assad’s army reinforced its dominant position across most of the country. Since then it has been trying to break down rebel resistance in Damascus and reassert full control of the capital after six years of war. The army and its allies have for months been targeting Eastern Ghouta, the biggest remaining rebel bastion near Damascus, while making only incremental gains.Rebel sources said their attack on Jobar, which they held for a time in 2013, was in response to their loss of ground in Qaboun and Barzeh, two other districts to the north.
“This is to relieve the pressure on rebels, with the regime not stopping its bombardment and artillery shelling on our people,” Abu Abdo, a commander from rebel group Failaq al-Rahman said via internet messaging, adding that the aim was to link up Jobar with Qaboun.
He said the rebel operation had included two suicide bombings launched by Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition of militant groups whose backbone is the former Al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels had captured several industrial sites and buildings east of the capital after launching their surprise attack. The Observatory said rebel shells hit several districts, and government warplanes pounded the Jobar area in response.
Another rebel fighter acknowledged army advances toward a major road between Qaboun and Barzeh. The capture of that road would sever the link between the two besieged rebel districts, where tens of thousands of people live. “Taking this road would isolate Barzeh and Qaboun completely and with a security belt around it,” said Abu Abdullah, another fighter with Failaq al-Rahman.
The government has been trying to pressure the rebels to surrender the pockets they hold in Damascus following victories in Aleppo, the central city of Homs and other Damascus suburbs.
Tens of thousands of fighters, dissidents and their family members in long-besieged areas have accepted exile to the country’s rebel-held northwest in what opposition figures have termed “forced displacement.”
Residents of Homs’ opposition-held Waer neighborhood began evacuating the city Saturday after years of siege and bombardment at the hands of pro-government forces. The evacuations are expected to continue for weeks, until the government will be able to claim control over the entire city for the first time since demonstrations broke out against Assad in 2011.
Meanwhile, at least nine civilians were killed in what activists said were government airstrikes on Idlib province.
The Civil Defense search-and-rescue group said three children and a woman were killed in an airstrike on the village of Khan Sheikhoun, and the Observatory reported another five people were killed in the provincial capital, also called Idlib.
Elsewhere, the regime forces recaptured the village of Al-Shrima and its farms after clashes with Daesh (ISIS), further advancing in Aleppo’s northeastern countryside.