Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will now find it more difficult to project business as usual after the rebellion against his regime turned into pitched battles on the streets of the capital Damascus on Monday, and the noose of international pressure around the regime further tightened.
Nawaf Fares, Syria’s ex-ambassador to Iraq and the most senior Syrian politician to defect to the opposition, told the BBC on Tuesday that Assad’s regime will not hesitate to use chemical weapons if it is cornered. When asked if he thought Assad might use chemical weapons against the opposition, Fares replied he could not rule it out, describing Assad as “a wounded wolf and cornered.”
“There is information, unconfirmed information of course, that chemical weapons have been used partially in the city of Homs,” Fares told the BBC. “It doesn’t occur to any Syrian, not only me, that Bashar al-Assad will let go of power through political interventions. … He will be ousted only by force,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lebanese media outlets reported Monday that both the Syrian and Lebanese armies have reinforced their respective armies positioned along their shared border, not only to prevent the civil war in Syria from spilling into Lebanon, but out of concern that Israel may be looking to pre-emptively attack in Syria in order to thwart the transfer of chemical weapons from the Syrian regime to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorist organization.
On the ground in Damascus, rebels fired grenades at tanks and troops while armored regime units shelled the city’s neighborhoods, sending terrified families fleeing the most sustained and widespread fighting in the capital since the start of the uprising 16 months ago. Activists say Syrian government forces have also used helicopter gunships to battle rebels in the capital Damascus.
The activists say that helicopters fired heavy machine guns during overnight clashes in the neighborhoods of Qadam and Hajar al-Aswad as a ring of fierce clashes nearly encircled the heavily guarded capital.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday that, “The fate of the Assad family is sealed, but on its way out of power it can kill more people. The Assad family is holding on to power at the cost of the continued slaughter of its own people. The world understands, the International Red Cross made a very important declaration [on Sunday] that it sees the situation in Syria as a civil war.”
Barak added that “there is a disturbing lesson in the fact that the entire world, even when these grave events unfold before all of our eyes, cannot manage to gather the fortitude, legitimacy or the unity required to… put an end to this bloodbath.”
While the clashes in Damascus were focused in a string of neighborhoods in the city’s southwest, for many of its four million people the violence brought ominously close to home the strife that has deeply scarred other Syrian cities.
In high-end downtown cafes frequented by the business and government elite tightly bound to the Assad regime, customers watched as black smoke billowed on the horizon and the boom of government shells reverberated in the distance.
“Without a doubt, this is all anyone is talking about today,” a Damascus activist who gave his name as Noor Bitar said via Skype. “The sounds of war are clear throughout the city. They are bouncing off the buildings.”
Meanwhile, Syrian Ambassador to Belarus Farouk Taha defected on Monday and aligned himself with the rebels. Also Monday, Morocco asked the Syrian ambassador to leave the country. Within hours, Syria’s state-run TV said the Foreign Ministry had declared Morocco’s ambassador to Syria persona non grata.
International diplomacy has failed to stop the violence, and world powers remain deeply divided over who is responsible and how to stop it. The U.S. and many Western nations have called on Assad to leave power, while Russia, China and Iran have stood by the regime.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the West of using blackmail to secure a U.N. Security Council resolution that could allow the use of force in Syria.
Lavrov objected to the text of a Western-backed resolution that calls for sanctions and invokes Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which can be enforceable militarily.
He said Russia had been told that if it opposed the resolution, Western nations would not extend the mandate of a U.N. mission sent to Syria to monitor a cease-fire.
“We consider it to be an absolutely counterproductive and dangerous approach, since it is unacceptable to use monitors as bargaining chips,” Lavrov said.
International envoy Kofi Annan, who has made little progress in brokering a political solution in Syria, met Russian leaders in Moscow on Monday. The meeting – the latest in Annan’s efforts to save his faltering peace plan – comes a day after the conflict crossed an important symbolic threshold, with the international Red Cross formally declaring it a civil war, a status with implications for potential war crime prosecutions.
Monday’s fighting suggested that deep cracks were appearing in the tightly controlled facade of calm that has insulated Damascus from violence throughout the uprising.
Damascus – and Syria’s largest city, Aleppo – are both home to elites who have benefited from close ties to Assad’s regime, as well as merchant classes and minority groups who worry their status will suffer if Assad falls.
But for months, rebels have been gaining strength in poorer towns and cities in the Damascus countryside. Some activists suggested Monday that recent government crackdowns in those areas had pushed rebels into the city, where they were determined to strike at the heart of the regime.
“It seems there is a new strategy to bring the fighting into the center of the capital,” said activist Mustafa Osso. “The capital used to be safe. This will trouble the regime.”
Another activist, who gave only his first name, Moaz, said he had never seen such violent fighting in his neighborhood of Tadamon, a poor, densely populated area south of downtown.
He said the army had parked armored vehicles at the neighborhood’s entrances and posted tanks on its north and south edges.
Some two-thirds of the neighborhood’s residents have fled, while those who remain are scared government snipers will target them if they leave now, he said.
But so far, the rebels have kept the army out, destroying three tanks and one armored car with rocket-propelled grenades, said Moaz, declining to give his full name for fear of retribution. Others spoke on condition anonymity.
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