Battles rage near Damascus after Arab League suspends mission

Thousands of troops and tanks rushed to Syrian capital's suburbs in fierce crackdown on rebels

The embattled Syrian regime moved thousands of its troops and tanks into suburbs on the edge of Damascus early yesterday in an effort to reclaim outlying districts from rebels, as fierce battles neared the capital for the first time.

The military offensive comes a day after the Arab League said it was suspending its controversial observer mission after its presence failed to stem the bloodshed in a nearly 11-month uprising that the United Nations estimates has cost at least 5,400 lives.

More than 50 tanks and personnel carriers, packed with 2,000 soldiers, rolled into the suburbs at dawn as the Assad regime tried to flush out rebels who have holed up in Sunni areas and set up checkpoints in the past week within striking district of its seat of power. At least 19 people were killed, and scores of residents were captured on video footage fleeing for Damascus as the areas came under heavy fire.

In addition to the assault on the Damascus suburbs of Arbeen, Jisreen, Saqba and Kfar Batna, there were also reports of heavy bombardments in the mountain town of Rankous, 20 miles north of the capital, where more than 30 people have been killed in recent days. Residents say thousands of troops have besieged the town since the middle of last week, trying to rout army defectors.

Activists, who said the death toll across Syria yesterday reached 66, including 26 civilians, claimed the majority of those killed in the fighting around Damascus were non-combatants. "It's urban war," one activist said. "There are bodies in the street."

Dissident fighters, mostly army defectors loosely banded under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, have grown increasingly bold in recent weeks, mounting potent attacks on government forces, and moving ever closer to the capital, which has until now escaped the large-scale protests and violence that has gripped other cities.

The sheer size of the military offensive, which started on Saturday and escalated in the early hours of Sunday morning, reflects President Bashar al-Assad's growing desperation to crush a once-peaceful uprising that now poses a grave threat to his rule. It also comes as diplomatic pressure on him to step aside intensifies, with the UN Security Council in discussions over the wording of a resolution condemning the ongoing violence, potentially paving the way for tougher sanctions.

Activists suggested that Mr Assad was fighting for his survival. "The fighting today is the most intense near the capital since the uprising began," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the British-based Observatory for Human Rights. "The Syrian regime is trying to finish the uprising militarily now that the case is being taken to the United Nations."

The Security Council, which held closed-door meetings on Friday to debate a draft resolution reflecting Arab League demands for Mr Assad to cede power, is divided. Russia, which wields a veto and has been unflinching in its support of the Syrian regime, is opposed to any resolution that calls for the removal of Mr Assad, and which does not rule out military action, fearing another Libya-style intervention.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby and Qatari Prime Minister Hamid bin Jassim set off for New York yesterday to gather support for the League's initiative to end the crisis. Their proposals, which call for Mr Assad to step down and form a unity government, will be presented to the Security Council tomorrow. Syria has already rebuffed the initiative.

Meanwhile, the Arab League is to discuss the fate of its observer mission, accused of providing cover for the regime's abuses, on 5 February. In sharply worded comments on Saturday, Mr Elaraby accused the government of killing "innocent citizens," rejecting the regime's portrayal of those calling for Mr Assad's overthrow as foreign-backed "terrorists".

In suspending the mission, he said that the government had "resorted to escalating the military option in complete violation of [its] commitments" to stop the bloodshed and to withdraw its troops from Syria's urban areas.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine