Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat –Syrian security forces yesterday launched a fierce counter-strike against the Damascus suburbs that had fallen under the control of the Free Syrian Army [FSA] on Thursday, in an attempt to re-establish the al-Assad regime’s security grip on the Syrian capital. Damascus has been subject to fierce battles between the Syrian opposition and the al-Assad regime over the past few days, with the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claiming that 300 people had been killed on the first day of fighting, and 240 on Friday, including 43 soldiers. This combined death toll makes it the bloodiest two days in the history of the 16-month uprising against al-Assad.
Fierce fighting also erupted in Syria’s historic northern city of Aleppo on Saturday between the FSA and al-Assad regime forces, with thousand reportedly fleeing the city. Activists reported that the FSA was massing in the Salaheddin district of Aleppo and that Syrian authorities had warned they would shell the rebel-controlled districts of the city.
Syrian state television said Friday that government forces had “cleaned” the capital’s Midan neighborhood of “terrorists”, the government’s customary term for the Syrian revolution. For his part, FSA Deputy Chief of Staff, Colonel Arif Hammoud, denied that FSA elements had completely withdrawn from Midan. He told Asharq Al-Awsat “the regime’s security forces entered Midan district, and we retreated to another location without leaving the district.”
He added “the FSA has a presence across Damascus, and the revolutionaries are wearing their official uniform, carrying arms and carrying out their duties as normal…therefore there is a possibility of [new] clashes breaking out in Damascus at any moment.”
Colonel Hammoud also confirmed that “the FSA is not capable of completely capturing an area and announcing that it has been liberated because the regime can resort to aerial bombardment.”
A senior FSA source, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, also revealed that “after we reinforced our position in a number of Damascus districts, including Midan, we carried out a partial withdrawal, which is a tactic that we employ in the FSA.”
The source added “it would be unwise to confront fighter jets and tanks with rifles…we try and avoid being caught in such a position” confirming that “we are fighting a battle of attrition against those who have reverted to the methods of gangs, based on hit and run attacks.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights revealed that at least 20 people had been killed across Syria on Saturday as clashes rocked the country’s largest two cities, Damascus and Aleppo. The Observatory claimed that this death toll included seven children killed in Damascus by sniper fire.
For his part, Syrian activist Wissam Nour, a member of the Damascus Local Coordination Council [LCC], informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “violent clashes have been taking place in a number of Damascus districts over the past three days, accompanied by artillery and helicopter attacks.”
He added “the rural areas south and west of Damascus are being targeted, whilst the districts of al Qaddam, al-Hajr al-Awsad, al-Hajeera, al-Sayyida Zeinab and al Mashtal have been subject to heavy shelling.”
In Damascus, a group of revolutionaries announced the formation of the “Nisoor al-Sham” [Eagles of the Levant] brigade, in response to the “massacres being carried out by the sectarian regime against the Syrian people.” This brigade is affiliated to the “Military Leadership to Damascus” group.
The recent fighting has also increased the pace of defections from the al-Assad regime, with reports claiming that 4 Syrian Brigadier-Generals had defected, fleeing the country to Turkey. This brings the number of senior military defectors in Turkey to around 100.