Residents flee Damascus as Syrian capital sees heaviest fighting so far in country's 'civil war'
Panic-stricken residents fled southern Damascus on Monday as the heaviest fighting seen in the city since Syria's uprising began stripped away the last veneer of normality in President Bashar al-Assad' principal stronghold.
Plumes of smoke were visible across the Syrian capital as fierce clashes raged for a second day within four miles of both Mr Assad's official residence and the buildings housing his pliant parliament.
With opposition forces claiming to have embarked on a new strategy "to bring the fighting into the centre of the capital", the Syrian conflict – described for the first time as a "civil war" by the Red Cross on Sunday – entered a dangerous new phase.
But even this most dramatic of escalations failed to break the deadlock in the United Nations Security Council.
Russia declared it would not succumb to Western "blackmail" by supporting a British proposal to try to end the crisis by threatening Mr Assad with sanctions. Kofi Annan, the international envoy to Syria, flew to Moscow in a desperate effort to end an impasse that now threatens the future of the 300-strong observer mission, whose mandate expires on Friday.
As the international acrimony ground on, the man Moscow has propped up for the past 16 months of turmoil struggled to confront one of the biggest challenges ever posed to his 12-year presidential career.
Mr Assad ordered what appeared to be the biggest military deployment yet witnessed in the capital as clashes were reported in six Sunni districts in southern Damascus. Rebel fighters even succeeded in briefly closing off the highway between the city and Syria's main international airport.
Hundreds of families were seen fleeing the suburbs of Midan and Tadamon, where the fighting was the heaviest. Government forces shelled rebel hideouts in both districts and a large number of armoured personnel carriers were deployed.
The southern districts have witnessed a steady increase in fighting, but never on this scale.
Even so, there is little likelihood that the capital will fall. Unlike in the north of the country the rebels are not yet of holding territory in Damascus and no more than a few hundred opposition fighters are thought to be involved in the clashes.
While the rebels will almost certainly have to withdraw in the face of superior firepower, the challenge they have laid down to Mr Assad cannot be ignored.
Until relatively recently, most of Damascus had been cocooned from the violence. Just a few months ago, trendy cafes in the centre of the city were filled with loyalist Syrians who loudly proclaimed that there was virtually no fighting taking place anywhere in the country.
That complacency has been shattered. Patrons in those same cafes said that the sound of falling mortars and near-constant gunfire was audible for much of the day yesterday.
Although few observers believe that Mr Assad is on the verge of being toppled, his position is becoming increasingly precarious as the rebels grow stronger, both militarily and numerically.
In a further sign that once-close allies are deserting him, the Saudi newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat reported the defection of the former head of Syria's chemical weapons programme, Adnan Silu, to the opposition.
But, in public at least, Russia no sign of deserting its ally. Shortly before meeting Mr Annan, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, accused Western states of trying to bounce Moscow into accepting a new UN Security Council resolution that would threaten the Assad regime with mandatory sanctions.
Mr Lavrov claimed that the West had threatened to scupper the Russian-backed UN observer mission to Syria if the Kremlin did not agree to the resolution.
Britain has proposed a "Chapter 7" resolution that would link the extension of the mission to an ultimatum to Mr Assad to withdraw heavy weapons from population centres within a 10-day deadline or face sanctions.
Under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, the sanctions would be binding to all member states, although the resolution is understood to have been drafted under an article that expressly forbids military action.
Russia, however, remains opposed to sanctions and has twice vetoed previous resolutions, fearing that they represented a stepping stone towards military action. Mr Lavrov indicated that Russia would be prepared to wield its veto a third time.
"To our great regret, there are elements of blackmail," Mr. Lavrov said.
"We are being told: if you do not agree to the resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, then we shall refuse to extend the mandate of the monitoring mission in this country."