The capital Damascus was the scene of several mortar attacks over the weekend as the opponents of the Syrian government sought to deflect government pressure on the suburb of Ghouta, the site of recent government advances, which has been besieged for the past six months.
Government forces reportedly clashed with rebels around the town of Mleiha on Saturday, close to the Ghouta district, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting intense fighting as the Syrian army attempted to storm the rest of the town after seizing the outskirts last week.
According to reports from the Observatory, a UK-based network of Syrian activists, a mortar round reportedly struck close to the Russian embassy in the capital, though no casualties were reported.
A rebel spokesman also said a police headquarters in the city was hit, which led to the outbreak of a serious fire. Reports say 22 people were injured overall in a series of attacks on the city on Saturday.
On Sunday, Syrian state news agency SANA reported that two people had been killed by a mortar strike on Damascus’s opera house, which was the site of a major speech by President Bashar Al-Assad last year, in which he vowed to defeat the rebels.
It is not clear if the building was struck deliberately, as it is located close to several official buildings, including military and security force headquarters.
In Aleppo, rebel spokesmen said that 18 people were killed on Saturday after rebel-held parts of the city were bombed by government helicopters with improvised ‘barrel bombs.’
Meanwhile, The Syrian National Coalition announced reform plans during the meeting of its general secretariat in Istanbul on Sunday, amid continuing discord within the organization.
The Coalition, the major umbrella organization of the groups opposed to the Syrian government, declared it had formed a provisional government in opposition to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in 2011, but has been unable to impose its authority on the ground in Syria.
Abdul Rahman Al-Haj, a member of the Coalition, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Among the amendments will be a clause which limits the number of the members of the political body. New clauses will also be added that are related to the establishment of committees to follow up the performance of transitional government ministries and play the role of monitor to ensure accountability.”
A source from the Coalition, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat that there were disagreements between the Coalition’s defense minister, Assad Mustapha, and the prime minister, Ahmad Tu’mah, on the appointment of the interior minister, which delayed the appointment of this post.
The source said he expected “Adnan Hazouzi, who is a doctor from Turkmen origins and with no affiliation to any political body within the Coalition, to occupy the post of minister of health.”
He added that “Mohyideen Bannanah, an independent, is expected to become minister of education despite the fact that head of the Democrats Alliance, Michel Kilo, recommended Ghassan Mortada in his place.”
Meanwhile, Coalition media coordinator Mohamed Kannan told Asharq Al-Awsat that the organization had recently received firm promises of military aid, which was supposed to start arriving following the appointments of government ministers, especially the interior minister, and the establishment of an operations room and commanders of rebel groups active across Syria.
Kannan said: “What is happening now at the Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Ministry should control these arms which should be distributed by the operations rooms in each governorate.”
He added that any type of arms would help the opposition, but that surface-to-air missiles remained the most important in the battles against the government, which makes extensive use of helicopters and combat jets.
Another source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat that promises from some states to arm the Syrian opposition started again following the failure of talks at Geneva earlier this year.
He said he expected the scope of training of opposition fighters in Jordan, which started around 18 months ago, to intensify.
The source claimed the military support will not be limited to rebel groups based in southern Syria, but refused to reveal other areas which would receive arms, though it was understood these arms would not include anti-aircraft missiles.
In a related issue, the Reuters news agency reported that two American security sources said that the US was putting the last touches to a plan to expand a covert training program for Syrian rebel fighters and provide them with light weapons.
The sources told Reuters that the US will increase its aid and send these arms to moderate groups, most of whom are in Jordan and the southern areas of Syria.
They said the new weapons would be modest and will not include surface-to-air missiles, because the US was concerned about the possibility of these advanced arms reaching extremist groups who could use them against airliners.
Caroline Akoum contributed to this report from Beirut