Sunday 18 March 2018

Damascus 'facing ruin' as rebels eye seat of power

Ruth Sherlock Beirut

SYRIAN rebels are preparing to mount their 'Zero Hour' campaign to take Damascus, with fears the capital is facing total destruction in the coming months.

As rebels fought government troops on the outskirts of the capital, an analyst in Damascus said the fighting was likely to defeat the aspirations of both sides.

"There is the risk of the total destruction of Damascus," said Peter Harling, project director with the Middle East Programme of the International Crisis Group. "The regime is well entrenched in some key parts of Damascus and the opposition is unable to come up with a political vision to offer an exit to the bulk of people fighting for the regime.

"We could see a repeat of the level of destruction that we have seen in other towns, but it would be worse this time: what transition do you get when you destroy the seat of power?"

But as the rebels advance, the US yesterday said it was "very concerned" that Bashar al-Assad's regime would resort to using chemical weapons.


"We remain very concerned that as the opposition advances – in particular on Damascus – that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons," US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said.

According to unconfirmed reports on Wednesday, the military had loaded precursor chemicals for sarin nerve gas into aerial bombs for potential use.

In recent weeks, armed groups have won control in much of the north of the country and seized key positions in Aleppo and in the capital.

Increasingly bullish, this week opposition activists launched a video titled 'Zero Hour – Your Final Chance,' warning residents in the capital to "change sides" before it is too late. The video, posted on Facebook, promises an imminent offensive that would seize central Damascus and "checkmate" the Syrian president.

It gives instructions on how to react to the attack and how best to survive it, and invites "all members of the Assad Army to defect in masses from this regime".

Seeking to boost their successes, commanders of the Free Syrian Army have gathered in Turkey to settle on a new organisational military structure that is intended to increase co-ordination between groups on the ground and improve weapons supply lines.

Britain said yesterday it will seek next week to amend a Syrian arms embargo to make it easier to help the rebels. A Foreign Office official said the increased "practical support" would be training and non-lethal equipment.

However, Mr Harling warned that the failure of the opposition's political wing – first the Syrian National Council and now the National Coalition – to carry a strong message of conciliation to government loyalists means the plan to overthrow the capital is doomed to a bloody failure. He believes it's one that could see Syria become a failed state.

"You can't just let the armed groups play this out. As the regime is forced into a fighting retreat we could see new conflicts ignite ... and the political opposition is totally absent."

Next week Syria's international allies, including Britain, will meet for a 'Friends of Syria' conference in Morocco where they are expected to endorse the National Coalition with full political recognition, as well as funds. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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