Troops seized eastern suburbs of Damascus from rebels early Monday, opposition activists said, after two days of fighting only a few kilometers from the center of power of President Bashar al-Assad.
“The Free Syrian Army has made a tactical withdrawal. Regime forces have re-occupied the suburbs and started making house-to-house arrests,” an activist named Kamal said by phone from the eastern al-Ghouta area on the edge of the capital.
A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army of defectors fighting Assad’s forces appeared to confirm that account.
“Tanks have gone in but they do not know where the Free Syrian Army is. We are still operating close to Damascus,” Maher al-Naimi told Reuters by phone from Turkey.
Activists said earlier on Sunday soldiers had moved into the suburbs at dawn, along with at least 50 tanks and other armored vehicles. At least 19 civilians and rebel fighters were killed in that initial attack, they said.
“The more the regime uses the army, the more soldiers defect,” Ahmed al-Khatib, a local rebel council member on the Damascus outskirts, told AFP.
Other rebel sources reported heavy fighting in Rankus, 45 kilometers from Damascus, and of heightened tension in Hama, further to the north.
Rankus was “besieged for the past five days and is being randomly shelled since dawn by tanks and artillery rounds,” rebel Abu Ali al-Rankusi told AFP by telephone.
Fighters had taken over districts less than eight km (five miles) from the heart of the city. The areas have seen repeated protests against Assad’s rule and crackdowns by troops in the 10-month-old uprising.
“It’s urban war. There are bodies in the street,” said an activist speaking from the suburb of Kfar Batna.
Residents of Damascus reported hearing clashes in the nearby suburbs, particularly at night, shattering the city’s calm.
“The current battles taking place in and around Damascus may not yet lead to the unraveling of the regime, but the illusion of normalcy that the Assads have sought hard to maintain in the capital since the beginning of the revolution has surely unraveled,” said Ammar Abdulhamid, a U.S.-based Syrian dissident, according to The Associated Press.
“Once illusions unravel, reality soon follows,” he wrote in his blog Sunday.
Residents of central Damascus reported seeing soldiers and police deployed around main squares.
The fighting using mortars and machine guns sent entire families fleeing, some of them on foot carrying bags of belongings, to the capital.
“The shelling and bullets have not stopped since yesterday,” said a man who left his home in Ein Tarma with his family Sunday. “It’s terrifying, there’s no electricity or water, it’s a real war,” he told AP by telephone on condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals.
The escalating bloodshed prompted the Arab League to suspend the work of its monitors on Saturday. Arab foreign ministers, who have urged Assad to step down and make way for a government of national unity, will discuss the crisis on Feb. 5.
Arab League chief Nabil al-Araby left for New York where he will brief representatives of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday to seek support for the Arab peace plan. Diplomats told Al Arabiya that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to attend the Security Council session on Tuesday.
He will be joined by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, whose country heads the League's committee charged with overseeing Syria.
Al-Araby said he hoped to overcome resistance from Beijing and Moscow over endorsing the Arab proposals.
A Syrian government official said the Arab League decision to suspend monitoring would “put pressure on (Security Council) deliberations with the aim of calling for foreign intervention and encouraging armed groups to increase violence.”
Assad blames the violence on foreign-backed militants.
Death toll mounts
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 41 civilian deaths across Syria on Sunday, including 14 in Homs province and 12 in the city of Hama. Thirty-one soldiers and members of the security forces were also killed, most in two attacks by deserters in the northern province of Idlib, it said, according to Reuters.
State news agency SANA reported the military funerals of 28 soldiers and police on Saturday and another 23 on Sunday.
After mass demonstrations against his rule erupted last spring, Assad launched a military crackdown. Growing numbers of army deserters and gunmen have joined the protesters in a country of 23 million people regarded as a pivotal state at the heart of the Middle East.
The insurgency has crept closer to the capital. The suburbs, a string of mainly conservative Sunni Muslim towns, known as al-Ghouta, are home to the bulk of Damascus's population.
One activist said mosques there had been turned into opposition field hospitals and were appealing for blood supplies. “They (the authorities) cut off the electricity. Petrol stations are empty and the army is preventing people from leaving to get fuel for generators or heating,” he said.
The Damascus suburbs have seen large demonstrations demanding the removal of Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that has dominated the mostly Sunni Muslim country for the last five decades.
In Rankous, 30 km (20 miles) north of Damascus by the Lebanese border, Assad’s forces have killed at least 33 people in recent days in an attack to dislodge army defectors and insurgents, activists and residents said on Sunday.
In Irbil, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq, about 200 members of Syria’s Kurdish parties were holding two days of meetings to explore ways of supporting efforts to topple Assad.
Abdul-Baqi Youssef, a member of the Syrian Kurdish Union Party, said representatives of 11 Kurdish parties formed the Syrian Kurdish National Council that will coordinate anti-government activities with Syria's opposition.
Kurds make up 15 percent of Syria’s 23 million people and have long complained of discrimination.
Giving time to Assad
Iran said Assad must be given time to implement reforms.
Tehran at first wholeheartedly supported Assad’s hardline stance against the 10 months of popular protests. It has since tempered its rhetoric, but it condemns what it calls foreign interference in Syrian affairs.
“They have to have a free election, they have to have the right constitution, they have to allow different political parties to have their activities freely in the country. And this is what he has promised,” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said.
“We think that Syria has to be given the choice of time so that by (that) time they can do the reforms.”
Syria has said it will hold a referendum on a new constitution soon, before a multi-party parliamentary election that has been much postponed. Under the present constitution, Assad’s Baath party is “the leader of the state and society.”
France, which has been leading calls for stronger international action on Syria, said the Arab League decision highlighted the need to act.
The United Nations said in December more than 5,000 people had been killed in the protests and crackdown. Syria says more than 2,000 security force members have been killed by militants.
On Friday, the U.N. Security Council discussed a European-Arab draft resolution aimed at halting the bloodshed. Britain and France said they hoped to put it to a vote next week.
Russia joined China in vetoing a previous Western draft resolution in October, and has said it wants a Syrian-led political process, not "an Arab League-imposed outcome" or Libyan-style "regime change".
Al-Araby told reporters Sunday in Egypt that contacts were under way with China and Russia.
“I hope that their stand will be adjusted in line with the final drafting of the draft resolution,” he told reporters before leaving for New York with the Qatari Prime Minister.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said he was “concerned” about the League’s decision to suspend its monitoring mission and called on Assad to “immediately stop the bloodshed.” He spoke Sunday at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa.