Damascus fighting rages in what may be ‘turning point’


Syria’s military deployed armoured vehicles near central Damascus on Monday as troops battled rebels around the capital in what activists said could be a turning point in the 16-month uprising.
Meanwhile Russia slammed as “blackmail” Western pressure to push for a UN Security Council resolution against Syria’s regime and said it would be “unrealistic” for its ally President Bashar al-Assad to quit.
With battles raging between the army and rebels around Damascus for a second straight day, troops deployed armoured vehicles near the historic neighbourhood of Al-Midan.
“This is the first time that armoured and military transport vehicles are deployed in Al-Midan,” Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP in Beirut. “Before, the security forces were deployed to suppress protests. Now, we have army troops engaged in combat,” said the director of the Britain-based watchdog.
A activist on the ground said the army was trying to overrun Al-Midan and described the fighting as a “turning point” in the revolt against Assad’s autocratic regime.
The battles are “the first of their kind. You can say there is a before and after in the Syrian revolution, and the turning point was July 15,” said the activist who identified himself as Abu Musab. “The army is trying to storm Al-Midan from two sides, with military vehicles,” he said. “There are many injured and some killed. We need blood donations.”
Activists said the army and Free Syrian Army rebels had been locked in fierce clashes since Sunday in the southern Damascus neighbourhood of Tadamon, Kfar Sousa in the west and Jobar in the east. They said the clashes are the worst in the capital since the start of the uprising in March 2011.
The Observatory reported “dawn battles on the road south of Kfar Sousa, between rebel fighters and soldiers who were in a convoy passing through the area.” Activists said residents were fleeing Tadamon, with many seeking shelter in the nearby Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp. The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper said the army was battling “terrorist groups” and accused the gunmen of seeking to launch “the great Damascus battle.”
But the opposition Syrian National Council accused the regime of transforming Damascus into “battlefields.”
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross sounded a note of alarm, saying Syria is in a state of all-out civil war and that all sides must respect humanitarian law or risk facing war crimes prosecutions. The latest violence comes as diplomatic pressure builds ahead of a key Security Council vote on Friday to decide if the 300-strong UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) will be renewed.
The unarmed observers are tasked with overseeing the implementation of a six-point peace plan brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan which has been flouted daily since mid-April when it went into effect. Speaking ahead of talks with Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of trying to “blackmail” Moscow to get its backing for possible sanctions against Syria. “To our great regret, we are witnessing elements of blackmail,” said Lavrov, adding it was “unrealistic” for Moscow to back calls for Assad to step down as the population supports him.