‘Intense’ air strikes pound rebels in east Damascus

‘Intense’ air strikes pound rebels in east Damascus

Smoke billows following an air strike in the rebel-held parts of the Jobar district, on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus. — AFP

Beirut — Heavy air strikes pounded rebel positions in east Damascus on Monday, a monitoring group said, as Syrian government forces pushed back a rebel assault. “There have been intense air strikes since dawn on opposition-held positions in Jobar from which the offensive was launched,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “The government and allied forces have retaken the initiative and are striking the groups that launched yesterday’s assault,” he added. Rebels launched an attack early Sunday on government positions in the eastern district of Jobar before advancing into the neighboring Abbasid Square area. It was the first time rebels had penetrated the Abbasid Square neighborhood in two years, but government forces had forced them back by nightfall. Russia’s Ambassador to Syria Alexander Kinshchak said one of the Russian embassy’s buildings in Damascus had been damaged in clashes between government and opposition forces, Russian news agency RIA reported on Monday. “We have a building that we haven’t been using temporarily, not far from the epicenter of yesterday’s clashes. I was told a shock wave knocked out the windows there,” Kinshchak was quoted as saying. On Sunday Syrian rebels launched a major offensive that brought them close to the heart of the Old City of Damascus, and government forces responded with intense bombardments of rebel-held areas. Witnesses said the army deployed tanks in some adjacent neighborhoods, and troops could be seen patrolling on foot. “The streets are empty and the army has despatched dozens of troops in the streets, and tanks are being moved. The sounds of mortars from Jobar have not stopped,” said a resident of the nearby Tijara district, who asked not to be named. Another witness said most shops had closed in areas close to the fighting, as people fled further away from the clashes. Heavy explosions rang out in the background as state TV broadcast live from Abbasiyin square, a usually teeming area  that seemed to be deserted of traffic and pedestrians. With the recapture of the city of Aleppo last December, President Bashar Al-Assad’s army reinforced its dominant position across most of the country. Since then it has been trying to break down rebel resistance in Damascus and reassert full control of the capital after six years of war. The army and its militias have for months been targeting Eastern Ghouta, the biggest remaining rebel bastion near Damascus, while making only incremental gains. Rebel sources said their attack on parts of Jobar, which they held for a time in 2013, was in response to their loss of ground in Qaboun and Barza, two other districts to the north. “This is to relieve the pressure on rebels, with the regime not stopping its bombardment and artillery shelling on our people,” Abu Abdo, a commander from rebel group Failaq Al-Rahman said via internet messaging, adding that the aim was to link up  Jobar with Qaboun. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said rebels had captured several industrial sites and buildings between Jobar and Qaboun after launching their surprise attack. An official of Ahrar Al-Sham rebel group said the capture of large swathes of the industrial area that has long  been an army line of defense for the capital could help a bid to push deeper into the heart of the capital in coming days. The Observatory said rebel shells hit several districts, and government warplanes pounded the Jobar area in response. At least 30 raids were conducted and hundreds of surface-to-surface missiles targeted rebel-held areas. Another rebel fighter acknowledged army advances in the last two days towards a major road between Qaboun and Barza had been a big blow. The capture of that road would sever the link between the two besieged rebel districts, where tens of thousands of people live and would force the hands of rebels to agree to deals worked out elsewhere that force them to pull back to northern Syria. The deals are viewed by rebels as forcibly displacing people who oppose Assad after years of bombardment and siege. “Taking this road would isolate Barza and Qaboun completely and with a security belt around it,” said Abu Abdullah, another fighter with Failaq Al-Rahman.