Syrian army pushing rebels out of Damascus, activists say

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 1, 2012 

— Anti-government activists in Damascus say rebels have lost ground there after a concerted offensive by the Syrian government.

Residents of neighborhoods in southern Damascus that have been the scenes of intense fighting in the last month said the rebels had largely withdrawn after running short of ammunition and, in some cases, support.

“People want the (rebels) to change their tactics,” said Nidal, an anti-government activist in Yarmouk, a large neighborhood in southern Damascus that borders a number of neighborhoods that had largely been taken over by the rebels. Nidal did not use his last name for fear of reprisals from the government.

“They still support them, but they want them to attack and disappear,” Nidal said.

Though the rebels have often stated their commitment to guerrilla warfare, they have frequently taken over swathes of territory in Syrian cities and the countryside, drawing punishing shelling and airstrikes from the Syrian military. In pockets across the country, rebels have attempted to install themselves as a sort of government, alternately earning praise and criticism from civilians, but hardly adhering to guerrilla tactics.

Nidal said that the government’s strategy of cordoning off a neighborhood before launching an incursion had succeeded in starving rebels of weapons and other supplies, citing the neighborhoods of Hajjar al Aswad and Tadamon, both of which adjoin Yarmouk, as examples of where the siege strategy had worked.

Other activists said Daraya, another southern Damascus suburb, remained without water and power more than a month after Syrian troops and pro-government militia had launched raids in the area, killing hundreds in late August.

Rebels had re-infiltrated all three areas in small numbers, Nidal said, but he added that nowhere in Damascus was there a rebel force capable of repelling army assaults and raids, as had occurred in a number of areas since rebels first began fighting in the capital in mid-July.

Yarmouk is home to about a million people, about half of whom are Palestinians. While many young Palestinians have joined the revolt against the government, an important dynamic in this month’s fighting was the reassertion of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, a pro-government Palestinian militia. Until last year the Popular Front, led by Ahmed Jabril, had controlled Yarmouk before anger toward the government made its militia rebel targets as well. In the last two weeks, the Popular Front has been resupplied with weapons by the Syrian government. According to people in Yarmouk, it once more controls the neighborhood.

Some residents of Yarmouk said that as many as 25,000 people had fled there from other parts of the country and that the recent fighting in Damascus had overwhelmed efforts to alleviate shortages of housing and food, leaving families camped in parks and begging for supplies.

The government’s relative success in Damascus may simply be the result of a concentration of forces. In Aleppo, rebels have been able to maintain supply lines, though many there have complained bitterly about the lack of ammunition and heavy weaponry. Military analysts say the Syrian government has chosen to make a stand in Damascus and concentrated its most loyal and best-armed forces there, including the Republican Guard.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, which documents the deaths of rebels and civilians, recorded 4,325 such deaths in September. The number was less than August’s peak of nearly 5,400, but more than any other month to date. September does appear to have marked the grim milestone, however, of the deadliest single day of the conflict – 366 people killed on Sept. 27.

Damascus was the most violent province during the month, with 1,471 recorded fighter and civilian deaths. There were 986 in Aleppo province. In central Syria, the siege of Homs, the country’s third largest city, was nearing its fifth month. The strategy the Syrian military has employed recently in Damascus is writ large in Homs, with residents complaining of acute shortages of food in rebel-held areas. There were also similar reports from Deir al Zour, a city near Syria’s border with Iraq, where the government continues to rain artillery and airstrikes in a long-term siege.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights listed 483 women and children as among the dead across the country.

Violence had ebbed from an initial high in February and dropped in April and May after the announcement of a United Nations-backed peace plan. But violence escalated again in June as the plan fell apart and neither side showed a willingness to negotiate.

The Syrian government stopped publicizing casualties among the army and security forces earlier this year, though in June the Syrian government’s own reports indicated rebels were sometimes killing dozens of soldiers each day. The number of total dead in the conflict is now likely more than 35,000.

Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: denders@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter @davidjenders

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