Assad regime responded to the surprise attack by rebels alliance on Syria’s capital of Damascus by heavy airstrikes on the battles frontlines and the rebel-held areas, forcing the rebels to retreat from most of the positions they gained.
A surprise attack by rebel alliance on March 19. on the Assad regime position in Syria’s capital of Damascus led to heavy clashes and rocket shelling, which were described as the most fierce in years.
The escalation, reported by witnesses, state TV, rebel sources, and a monitoring group, marked a bid by the rebels to relieve army pressure on besieged areas they control to the east of the capital.
Moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) and jihadist groups were both involved in the assault on the districts of Jobar and Abbasid Square area, some 2 km (1.2 miles) east of the Old City walls.
The attack began early on Sunday “with two car bombs and several suicide attackers” on the Jobar district, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
Rebels then advanced into the nearby Abbasid Square area, seizing several buildings and firing a barrage of rockets into multiple Damascus neighbourhoods, Abdel Rahman said.
Control of Jobar – which has been a battleground district for more than two years – is one of the goals of the attack. It is divided between rebels and allied hardline fighters on one side, and government forces on the other. It is one of three pockets in the Syrian capital still in opposition hands.
In addition, relieving the pressure on other rebel-held areas, where the regime have been pushing hard to take over, is a direct motive of this new attack.
Regime forces fight back, intensive airstrikes
A regime’s military source and a war monitor said the army had recaptured all the positions it had lost, but rebels said they were still holding on to some of their gains despite heavy aerial bombing that had forced them to retreat.
Syrian state television said the regime’s army “had repelled infiltration attempts by the militants and bombarded them with artillery, inflicting heavy losses.”
Witnesses said the regime’s 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.
The regime advance involved heavy fighting and intense air strikes, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a military media unit run by the army’s ally Hezbollah said.
A Reuters witness saw warplanes circling in the sky above northeast Damascus, mortar fire, and a street with a line of burned-out cars from the fighting in the Jobar and al-Qaboun districts.
The Observatory said heavy fighting continued and that the army had unleashed more than 500 air raids and artillery strikes. The Hezbollah-run military media unit said that air raids were aimed at rebel supply lines.
“There have been intense air strikes since dawn on opposition-held positions in Jobar from which the offensive was launched,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of Observatory said.
“The government and allied forces have retaken the initiative and are striking the groups that launched yesterday’s assault,” he added.
Abdel Rahman said it was unclear whether government forces or their Russian allies were carrying out Monday’s raids on Jobar.
The fighting killed at least 26 government soldiers or allied fighters and 21 rebels, Abdel Rahman said, but he did not have an immediate toll for Monday morning’s raids.
On Sunday, opposition fighters seized several buildings in Jobar before advancing into the neighbouring Abbasid Square area – the first time in two years that the opposition advanced so close to the capital’s centre.
Fighting raged close to the old city in Damascus and the advance linked Jobar to Qaboun and other areas to the north which had been under government siege.
However, the intensity of the Syrian army’s counterattack forced the rebels to retreat on Sunday night from at least 60 percent of the areas they captured that day in an industrial area that separated Qaboun from Jobar, a rebel spokesman said.
“Today the clashes are difficult and there is no progress in the face of this ferocious bombardment that is not just limited to the frontline but all night the regime was shelling the cities and towns in Eastern Ghouta in retaliation,” Wael Alwan, the spokesman for Failaq al Rahman, told Reuters.
A journalist, reporting from near Damascus, said at least 15 civilians had been killed after government forces shelled residential neighbourhoods in Eastern Ghouta.
Another journalist said people in the old city reported walls reverberating with the ferocity of the government’s bombardment, and that rebel activists had described the raids as “relentless”.
“We understand that since daybreak there have been around 30 air strikes in [Jobar],” Tyab said, adding that there were reports of heavy rebel losses, although credible figures were not yet available.
The rebels are still strong
For rebels, however, their first such large scale foray in over four years inside the capital signaled they were still able to wage offensive actions despite their string of defeats.
“This battle gave hope we can stand up to the regime’s military machine … It was again us going back to a sort of balance of force and not just defending ourselves,” Alwan said.
The army and its affiliated militias have been targeting the besieged Eastern Ghouta area, the biggest remaining rebel bastion around the capital, for months, making incremental gains.
It has undertaken a relentless bombing campaign of residential areas to force rebels to surrender and agree to deals that push them out of these areas, or what the regime calls “reconciliation agreements.”
Assad has described these agreements as the only form possible of the political solution in Syria, as the rebels and the original inhabitants of the area are forced to leave to northern Syria, while the regime and its allied Shiite militias take control of what they call “liberated land.”
It seems that the message the rebels want to deliver in this offensive is that they refuse these agreements and want to prevent Assad regime from controlling a bigger area around the capital, keeping pressure cards in the opposition’s hands after losing many important strongholds in Homs and Aleppo.
An analyst said the timing of the rebel offensive was significant, marking six years since the start of the Syrian uprising.
“I think it really was in the calculus of the rebels that they want to make it known that they are still going to resist the regime, that they are still going to fight, despite the very heavy losses that they have experienced,” he said.
He added that rebel fighters used car bombs, suicide bombs, and tunnels in their assault.
“We understand that some of these [rebel] fighters have been able to launch mortar shells inside the city itself.”
Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria at the University of Oklahoma, said on Monday that the rebel offensive had taken the government by surprise and that a significant response was inevitable.
“The regime is going to realise that it cannot allow these two areas to linger there because they are beachheads for this Tahrir al-Sham group to make inroads into the Damascus area,” he said, adding the government would likely withdraw some forces from areas such as Homs and Hama to refocus on Damascus.
“It means that the fight is still on, there are many fronts to this war, and the opposition remains powerful.”
The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.