Syrian army cracks down on rebels

Fighting near Damascus signals threat to rulers

BEIRUT – Syrian tanks and troops moved Sunday to crush resistance in the rebellious suburbs of Damascus, opposition groups reported, bringing the bloody battle that has ravaged the nation for months to the doorsteps of the nation’s capital.

The fierce fighting reported outside Damascus was the latest sign that Syria’s armed insurgency – long concentrated in provincial hotbeds of revolt such as Homs, Hama and Dara – has now reached the edge of the city from where the Assad family has ruled Syria in autocratic fashion for more than 40 years. That reign now appears threatened as never before, raising the prospect of a revamped geopolitical alignment in the heart of the volatile Middle East.

More than 250 people have been killed in clashes nationwide since Thursday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition coalition. The group reported at least 64 deaths on Sunday alone.

The opposition reported Sunday that convoys of government tanks, army personnel carriers and infantry troops stormed the Ghouta region east of Damascus, a sprawling patchwork of working-class towns and farmland where rebels have been active. The military was seeking to oust armed rebels from restive suburbs such as Saqba, Kfar Batna and Hammouriya. The opposition described scenes of street fighting and urban warfare, as guerrillas ensconced in alleyways and buildings confronted the advancing troops and their heavy armor.

“There was a barbaric shelling,” said an activist via Skype from the industrialized suburb of Saqba just 3.5 miles from the capital. “What happened today was actually a war. … The army was very aggressive.”

The reports could not be independently verified because access to the battle zone is restricted. Video images from areas including Saqba and Duma have shown rebel forces in control of town squares, while sympathizers brazenly waved the green, white and black flag that predates the rule of the Assad family and the Baath Party. Opposition activists theorized that the video of towns under the control of the insurgent Free Syrian Army had enraged the government, spurring Sunday’s offensive.

“The big demonstrations in the Damascus region and the eastern Ghouta specifically have provoked the presidential palace,” said the activist in Saqba, who goes by the nom de guerre Omar Hamzawi.

An opposition activist in Duma said 50 tanks and 2,500 troops of the Republican Guard and the army’s 4th brigade had descended on the eastern suburbs. At least 23 people died, said the activist, who goes by the pseudonym Mohammed Doumany.

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