Despite reports last week that suggested rebel forces were on the verge of major triumphs in Syria, the last few days of fighting there show that a long battle still looms.
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in recent days have tightened their grip on the Lebanese border, re-established control over at least one neighborhood in Damascus and perhaps reached an accommodation with the country’s Kurds that will free up more troops for battle.
Government forces continued to shell parts of Damascus on Monday, a sign that rebel forces were still active there, but Midan, a central neighborhood that rebels took over last week, appeared to be back under government control, and many residents who’d fled the fighting were said to be returning home.
“My family left their houses last Wednesday,” said Abu Omar, a young man from the neighborhood who was reached by phone in Amman, Jordan, where he’d gone to escape the fighting. He asked to be identified by a pseudonym because he feared government retribution for speaking publicly. “They haven’t got back home, but lots of the neighbors did. The shelling has stopped but the soldiers remain.”
South of Midan, government forces reportedly were shelling the neighborhoods of Tadamon, Hajar al Aswad and Yarmouk, and fighting was reported in Barzeh, in north Damascus. But rebel troops were said to have abandoned the neighborhood of Mezzeh after weekend fighting killed at least 13 rebels.
The Syrian military also claimed to have cleared the capital’s Qaboun neighborhood of rebels, though anti-Assad activists said government forces had shelled the area Sunday, suggesting that it remained under rebel control.
Rebel sympathizers reported that fighting also continued in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, though it was unclear whether the rebels had captured any neighborhoods. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, a London-based group that tracks civilian and rebel casualties, reported that 33 people had died in fighting in Aleppo over Saturday and Sunday, and that 94 were killed during the same period in the capital.
Fighting broke out last week in Damascus and Aleppo in what was widely described as the rebels’ first sustained offensive in Syria’s two most important cities, coinciding with a bombing in Damascus that killed the defense minister, his deputy, a senior defense adviser and the deputy intelligence chief.
The bombing, coupled with the offensive, prompted rebel celebrations and speculation, in Syria and elsewhere, that Assad’s end could be near.
But reports in the subsequent days have made it clear that while fighting has spread to the capital and the country’s business center, the Syrian military hasn’t slowed its offensives in other parts of the country and that while momentum may favor the rebels, the end of the conflict isn’t in sight.
Fighting in Homs, the country’s third largest city, continued unabated; the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported a total of 43 people killed Saturday and Sunday. The months-long standoff between rebels and loyalist forces in the city appeared to be unchanged.
“The army is still where it was a month ago,” said Mahmoud Najjar, a spokesman for rebels in Talbiseh, a city of about 60,000 just north of Homs where rebels routed the Syrian army in June. Since then, the military has made a handful of incursions into the city but mostly has shelled it from its outskirts and manned checkpoints on its periphery.