Syria: Rebels weaken as state forces retake control of Damascus
The Assad regime claimed to have retaken control of Damascus last night after its most elite fighting force ruthlessly overwhelmed rebel strongholds in the city's Sunni suburbs.
Backed by heavy artillery and helicopter gunships, the 4th Armoured Division, commanded by President Bashar al-Assad's feared younger brother Maher, swept through three rebel-held districts and laid siege to a fourth.
It was confirmed by the Israeli military last night that Mr Assad remained in the capital, after rumours that he had fled for the coastal city of Latakia.
The counter-offensive effectively ended rebel hopes of capturing the Syrian capital and bringing a swift end to an uprising that has ground on for 16 months, and which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday had killed more than 19,000 people.
For more than a week, the rebel Free Syrian Army, the FSA, had fought a tenacious campaign to "liberate" Damascus, launching a wave of assaults at the heart of Mr Assad's heavily fortified citadel.
Hopes of a quick victory were boosted by the most audacious strike of all -- a bomb that struck a meeting of the regime's 14-man national security council, killing four of the president's chief lieutenants, including his powerful brother-in-law.
As Mr Assad re-marshalled forces, the inferiority of the rebels, both in weaponry and manpower, began to tell.
Having consolidated control of the Midan area, captured on Friday, soldiers from the 4th Division took Qaboon, one of the city's most fiercely contested districts, leaving a trail of rebel corpses in their wake.
A force of more than 1,000, backed by armoured vehicles, tanks and bulldozers, then drove the rebels from Mezzeh, the capital's diplomatic district.
Even in the northern suburb of Barzeh, rebels found themselves besieged and five captured troops were reportedly summarily executed last night.
The revival of the regime's fortunes appeared to owe much to Maher al-Assad, whose perceived tactical deficiencies are outweighed by his use of brute force. He has previously led successful missions to subdue Deraa, Homs and a string of other rebellious cities.
Even so, the bloodiest phase of the uprising -- opposition activists reported yesterday that 2,500 people had died so far this month -- is far from over.
Rebel commanders conceded that their "Operation Damascus Volcano" had suffered setbacks, but claimed they still retained the capacity to grind the regime down slowly.
"The FSA don't have the resources to hold ground but they are still everywhere," said an activist in Damascus who identified himself as Tareq.
Despite their losses in Damascus, rebel forces staged a show of strength in Aleppo, Syria's second city, launching an attack on its principal intelligence base. Rebel commanders said a campaign was under way to liberate the city, which is considered broadly loyal to Mr Assad. (© Daily Telegraph, London)