DAMASCUS — Syria’s military Monday deployed armored vehicles near central Damascus as troops battled rebels around the capital in what activists said could be a turning point in the 16-month uprising.
Russia, meanwhile, 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.
“Al-Midan and Tadamon are out of the army’s control,” said Ahmed Al-Khatib, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) military council in Damascus.
“The army has no presence inside either of these neighborhoods any more, though they are shelling from the outside, and clashes on the edges of the neighborhoods continue.”
As battles raged around Damascus for a second straight day, troops deployed armored vehicles near Al-Midan neighborhood.
“When there is fighting in the capital for several hours, even days, and troops are unable to control the situation, that proves the regime’s weakness,” Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
An activist on the ground, identifying himself as Abu Musab, said the army was trying to overrun Al-Midan and called the fighting a “turning point” in the revolt against Assad’s autocratic regime.
Activists said the army and FSA rebels had also been locked in fierce clashes since Sunday in the southern Damascus neighborhood of Tadamon, Kfar Sousa in the west and Jobar in the east.
The authorities vowed they would not surrender the capital. “You will never get Damascus,” read the headline in Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the regime.
“Security forces, backed by the army, have for the past 48 hours been attacking the terrorist groups as they try to pull back to districts on the outskirts,” the paper said.
Activists said residents were fleeing Tadamon, with many seeking shelter in the nearby Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, as the opposition Syrian National Council accused the regime of transforming Damascus into “battlefields.”
The latest violence comes as diplomatic pressure builds ahead of a key Security Council vote Friday to decide if the 300-strong UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) will be renewed.
The unarmed observers are tasked with overseeing 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 was to have gone 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 that it was “unrealistic” for Moscow to back calls for Assad to step down as the population supports him.
“It is simply unrealistic... he will not leave power. And this is not because we are protecting him but because there is a very significant part of the Syrian population behind him.” — AFP