17 Jul 2012

Opposition declares battle for Damascus has begun

As the Assad regime fights back in the south of Damascus, its opponents in the Free Syrian Army say they have launched their fight for the capital, dubbed “Operation Damascus Volcano”.

An activist in the capital has told Channel 4 News that the Syrian army has been attacking the southern suburbs of Damascus using heavy machine guns.

Clashes have been focussed on Midan and Tadamon. Much of the Sunni population of Tadamon has fled said the activist, and the remaining Alawite community has reportedly been armed by the regime. Some 80 per cent of the civilian population was said to have left Midan.

Activists also reported the re-deployment of troops from the Golan Heights and Deraa to fight in the capital, backing up the testimony of Israel’s military intelligence chief, Major General Aviv Kochavi, who told the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defence committee on Tuesday that the Assad regime has moved many of its forces from the Golan region to Damascus.

Armoured vehicles rolled into the southern Damascus district of Midan on Monday and were reinforced by security forces surrounding the area. Residents said they saw snipers deployed on rooftops.

“There are troops everywhere, I can hear ambulances,” said a resident near Midan. “It feels like a war in Damascus.”

The government has said little about the unrest in the capital. State television reported that security forces were chasing “terrorist groups” that had fled to some neighbourhoods in Damascus.

Much of the city is on strike, with shops closed and workers staying at home.

When you turn your guns against the heart of Damascus, on Midan, you have lost the city. Imad Moaz, activist

Anti-government activists said clashes so close to the seat of government showed that rebels were chipping away at state power in a capital once seen as Assad’s impenetrable stronghold.

“When you turn your guns against the heart of Damascus, on Midan, you have lost the city. The rebels in the street have the support of families across Damascus,” said Damascus-based activist Imad Moaz.

Activist accounts are hard to verify because the government restricts access to international media.

The spread of hostilities in the Syrian capital comes as United Nations envoy Kofi Annan visits Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin, who has resisted western calls to increase pressure on Assad.

“Anger and pain”

The highest ranking defector from Syria, General Manaf Tlass – a former childhood friend of President Assad – on Tuesday issued a statement in Paris calling for a “constructive transition that guarantees Syria its unity, stability and security”.

General Tlass, whose defection was announced on 6 July, added:

“I cannot but express my anger and pain at seeing the army pushed to carry out a fight that is against its principles, a fight directed by security forces and in which the people, including the soldiers, are the victims.”

General Tlass is the son of Syria’s former defence minister Mustafa Tlass, a close friend of President Assad’s father Hafez.

In Turkey, officials said a Syrian brigadier-general and several other military officers and their families have defected from Syria overnight.

Officials say the latest arrivals brings the total number of Syrian generals sheltering in Turkey to 18, including one retired officer. A total of 1,280 refugees crossed into Hatay province overnight, increasing the total number to 42,680 in Turkey alone.

Refugee crisis

On Monday the United Nations warned that lack of money was threatening efforts to deal with the escalating refugee crisis in the region. To date, the UN has raised only 20 per cent of the $189m appeal fund to assist refugees in Syria, and only 20 per cent of the $193m for helping refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Following a meeting of the Syrian Humanitarian Forum, John Ging, from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), warned: “If we don’t get more money, people will die and there will be more humanitarian suffering. The needs will grow as long as this conflict continues.”

“To enable humanitarian action in an incredible difficult, dangerous environment, funding is now the number one priority in terms of unlocking a bigger humanitarian response.”

Speaking at the Bashabsheh refugee camp in Jordan on Tuesday, Foreign Secretary William Hague promised that aid would be forthcoming to help refugees.

He also announced the UK will train an additional 20 Syrian human rights activists to join 47 who were trained earlier this year and have since been gathering evidence for the United Nations Human Right Council’s commission of inquiry.

Violence in Damascus

Read more: Inside Syria's dungeons

‘Elements of blackmail’

The West wants Moscow to drop its support for Assad, which has seen Russia veto action against him at the UN Security Council. But before talks with Annan, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signalled no change in Moscow’s position.

Lavrov said Western efforts to pass a Security Council resolution – which would extend a UN monitoring mission in Syria and also include a threat of sanctions – contained “elements of blackmail”. He called for support for Moscow’s rival text instead, which does not call for sanctions.

“If our partners decide to block our resolution no matter what, then the UN mission will not have a mandate and will have to leave Syria. That would be a pity,” he said.

The small, unarmed monitoring mission is the only international military presence in Syria. It was brought in as part of a peace plan backed by Annan, but suspended due to rising violence in Syria, where activists say more than 17,000 people have died.

Activists reported at least seven people killed in the fighting in Damascus on Monday, but said casualties were hard to determine due to difficulty of movement in violence-hit areas.

What began as a protest movement inspired by demonstrations in other Arab countries has become an armed insurgency fighting back against Assad’s crackdown. The International Committee for the Red Cross now classifies the conflict as a civil war.