Heavy fighting broke out between Syrian government forces and rebel groups in several districts of the capital Damascus, after rebel fighters detonated two cars in a contested area that killed 20 people, reports and activists said.
Sunday's clashes came as rebels affiliated with the Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition of Islamist opposition forces, rapidly advanced in Jobar, Qaboun and Ein Tarma neighborhoods in eastern Damascus.
Smoke billows following a reported air strike in the rebel-held parts of the Jobar district, on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, March 19, 2017.
Since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has maintained strong grip on the capital city and rebel fighters who control small pockets in Damascus have been besieged by government troops since 2013.
Many observers view increasing pressure on the capital by rebels and other militant groups as a major development.
“This is a major development in the heart of Damascus,” said Zara Seyda, a Syrian reporter who closely follows the events. “The Syrian government has always wanted to make certain that rebels are far from establishing strongholds in Damascus.”
According to opposition news sources, the rebels have captured several regime-held positions and a dozen soldiers were killed in the clashes. Rebels “are trying to seize al-Adawi highway that connects eastern Damascus to the downtown area,” Ayman Midani, a local media activist in Damascus, told VOA.
But the state-run SANA news agency downplayed the recent events in Damascus “Army units thwarted the attack by the terrorists and isolated them in the area.” SANA news agency reported.
Syrian government refers to opposition fighters as “terrorists”.
Syrian government has also deployed military reinforcement to embattled area and increased security measures throughout Damascus, a Syrian news agency Smart News reported.
The security situation in Damascus has deteriorated in recent weeks. A series of suicide bombings, including three in the last two weeks that killed at least 150 people and wounded hundreds more have shaken the capital, which is seen as a major stronghold of Assad and his regime.
An al-Qaida affiliate, operating in Syria, has claimed responsibility for the recent suicide bombings in Damascus.
Rebels are after leverage
Observers believe that rebels’ further advances in eastern Damascus could undermine government’s ability to secure the capital.
“Sunday’s clashes certainly threaten the relative stability Damascus has enjoyed for some time,” said Rami Abdulrahman, director of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that has researchers across Syria.
Others say that rebels attempt to make some military inroads before the upcoming round of U.N.-sponsored peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups in Geneva.
“The timing of these military operations is crucial for the rebels,” reporter Seyda said. “The opposition is trying to make some military gains that could leverage their talks with the Assad regime in Geneva.”
He added that Damascus’s symbolic and strategic status as the capital city attracts the rebels to put their weight behind the ongoing battle there.