Syria army pounds rebels around Damascus


BEIRUT — Fierce clashes and heavy government bombardment were reported Sunday on the outskirts of Damascus as the Syrian military pressed an offensive aimed at securing the capital and its vulnerable international airport.

Syrian warplanes and artillery pounded rebel-held positions to the south and east of the capital, opposition spokesmen said, continuing a pattern of heavy strikes that has continued for at least four days.

The government appears intent on creating a security cordon around the capital and along the road to the nation’s international airport, where flights were interrupted last week because of clashes along the main airport road — which skirts several rebel-dominated districts. The government reportedly brought in troop reinforcements to secure the route to the airport, about 15 miles southeast of downtown Damascus.


The pro-government Al Watan newspaper reported Sunday that the Syrian army “has completely opened the gates of hell before all who would even consider approaching Damascus or planning to attack it.”

Losing access to its international airport would be a major psychological and strategic blow for the beleaguered government of President Bashar Assad, which has seen a steady erosion of its territory.

In recent weeks, rebels have overrun a number of military bases, while also seizing oil wells and a hydroelectric facility. Rebels already control several border crossings into neighboring Turkey and large swaths of territory in northwestern and eastern Syria.

The official state news service reported Sunday that troops killed scores of “Al Qaeda terrorists” in various Damascus suburbs, including Zamalka and Dariya. The government routinely links rebels to Al Qaeda, though opposition commanders insist that brigades linked to Al Qaeda or inspired by Osama bin Laden’s philosophy represent a small minority of the highly fragmented rebel force.

The recent fighting and bombardment near Damascus appear to be the heaviest in the capital since last summer, when the army cleared opposition fighters from much of the city in methodical, district-by-district sweeps. Many rebels retreated to working-class suburbs and semirural enclaves where they enjoy considerable support.

The government declared last summer’s “cleanup” operation in the capital a major victory, but the renewed clashes suggest that the rebel force was not vanquished but mostly fell back outside Damascus to fight another day.

Inside Damascus, a series of car bombings — most recently on Saturday — have killed and wounded many civilians in recent weeks. The government has blamed “terrorists” for the attacks. The rebels deny targeting civilians and say car bombs are aimed at security installations.

Also on Sunday, government and opposition spokesmen reported that a car bomb exploded in a residential district in the central city of Homs, killing as many as 15.

The city, Syria’s third most populous, has been under virtual government siege for months. Homs was a major focus of the armed rebellion before twin rebel operations last summer targeted the nation’s two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo.

The opposition reports that as many as 40,000 people have been killed in the 20-month Syrian conflict. The government has not provided casualty figures.

Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed to this report.