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.”
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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.
“We still need some help from the air,” Najjar said, referring to the rebels’ lack of heavy weaponry. In past months, the rebels have proved adept at attacking Syrian army checkpoints and small bases, but they’ve been unable to dislodge the military from larger installations, from which it shells and rockets rebel-held territory across the country.
Rebel control of some border crossings between Syria and Turkey and Iraq appeared to be of questionable strategic value. Iraq reported that it had sealed its borders with Syria, and Syrians in Jordan said that country largely had shut its borders, allowing in only Syrians who could prove they’d been in Jordan previously or who own property in the country.
Syrian activists in Lebanon said a tent camp had been set up near the main border crossing between Beirut and Damascus to accommodate those fleeing the violence. But the Syrian military appeared to have closed most smuggling routes between Syria and Lebanon, the closest border to Homs.
There’s no official tally of deaths in the conflict, but July clearly is headed to being the conflict’s deadliest month since the anti-Assad uprising began 16 months ago. As of Sunday, the Syrian Network for Human Rights had recorded 2,033 deaths in July. It recorded 2,336 deaths in all of June.
The Syrian government news agency, SANA, which for months had been issuing a daily tally of state funerals for Syrian soldiers and police officers, last published a list of the dead on June 26. Up to that point, June had been the bloodiest month for the Syrian military, with 649 soldiers reported killed.
Other sources indicated that recent fighting has taken a heavy military toll as well, including more than two dozen soldiers and police officers who were executed after rebels captured them.
News agencies quoted Iraqi officials last week as saying that Iraqi troops stationed at the Syrian border had witnessed the deaths of 22 soldiers who’d surrendered when rebels took a border crossing point, and rebels in the town of Al Tal, north of Damascus, told a McClatchy correspondent that they’d executed eight of more than 40 security personnel they’d captured in fighting there. Twenty-five of the captives were freed and the rest, all members of the Alawite religious minority, were being held for a possible prisoner exchange, said the rebels, who are Sunni Muslims.
There were conflicting reports from the country’s Kurdish north that the Syrian government had reached an agreement with Kurdish militiamen and political parties to withdraw from majority Kurdish areas, including Qamishli, the largest city in northeastern Syria. If that’s true, the agreement would free those forces to combat rebel units in other parts of the country.
Syria’s Kurdish minority, which makes up about 10 percent of its population, has largely avoided taking a side in the conflict. Many Kurds remain suspicious of the government and the rebels, and videos of anti-government demonstrations there often prominently feature Kurdish flags in addition to the one the rebels wave.
Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s semi-independent Kurdish region, told the satellite television channel Al Jazeera on Sunday that Kurdish Syrian fighters have been training in Iraq for months and could be deployed to Kurdish cities in Syria. He also said that some parts of northern Syria were already under the control of Kurdish fighters, after the Syrian military had withdrawn, and that Syrian Kurdish groups had won an agreement from the rebels not to attack the Syrian government in Kurdish-controlled territory.
McClatchy special correspondent Austin Tice in Al Tal, Syria, contributed to this report.