Rebels and militants waged a surprise assault on the Syrian capital Damascus, resulting in heavy clashes with regime forces on Sunday.
The fighting rocked eastern districts of the capital as rebels and jihadists tried to fight their way into the city center in the assault on regime forces.
The attack on Damascus comes just days before a fresh round of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva aiming to put an end to Syria’s six-year war. Rebels and regime troops agreed to a nationwide cessation of hostilities in December, but fighting has continued across much of the country, including in the capital.
Steady shelling and sniper fire could be heard across Damascus on Sunday as rebel factions allied with former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front launched an attack on regime positions in the city’s east.
The attack began early Sunday “with two car bombs and several suicide attackers” on the Jobar district, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
Rebels then advanced into the nearby Abbasid Square area, seizing several buildings and firing a barrage of rockets into multiple Damascus neighborhoods, he added.
Regime forces responded with nearly a dozen air strikes on Jobar, he stated.
Syrian state television reported that the regime was “thwarting an attack by terrorists” with artillery fire and had ordered residents to stay inside.
It aired footage from Abbasid Square, typically buzzing with activity but now empty except for the sound of shelling.
AFP correspondents in Damascus said regime forces had sealed off the routes into the square, where a thick column of smoke was rising into the cloudy sky.
Several schools announced they would close through Monday, and many civilians cowered inside in fear of stray bullets and shelling.
Control of Jobar — which has been a battleground for more than two years — is divided between rebels and allied militant and regime forces.
According to the Observatory, the Islamist Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group and the Fateh al-Sham Front — known as Al-Nusra Front before it broke ties with Al-Qaeda — are present in Jobar.
Regime forces have long sought to push the rebels out of the district because of its proximity to the city center in Damascus.
But with Sunday’s attack, Abdel Rahman said, “rebels have shifted from a defensive position in Jobar into an offensive one”.
“These are not intermittent clashes — these are ongoing attempts to advance,” he said.
A rebel commander said the assault on the regime’s last line of defense of the city’s residential areas was aimed at relieving pressure on rebels who have lost ground in Qaboun and Barza, north of Jobar.
He added that the rebels had seized several buildings that overlooked the Abbasid Square.
“Nine regime forces and at least 12 rebels were killed” in those districts over the last 24 hours, the Observatory said.
More than 320,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict erupted six years ago with protests against Bashar al-Assad’s rule.