First Published: 2017-03-19

Clashes in Damascus after surprise rebel assault
Heavy clashes rock eastern districts of Syrian capital as rebels, allied jihadists - led by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front - attack government positions.
Middle East Online

Fighters from the former Al-Nusra Front, renamed Fateh al-Sham Front after breaking from Al-Qaeda

DAMASCUS - Heavy clashes rocked eastern districts of the Syrian capital on Sunday as rebels and jihadists tried to fight their way into the city centre in a surprise assault on government forces.

The attack on Damascus comes just days before a fresh round of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva aiming to put an end to Syria's six-year war.

Rebels and government troops agreed to a nationwide cessation of hostilities in December, but fighting has continued across much of the country, including in the capital.

Steady shelling and sniper fire could be heard across Damascus on Sunday as rebel factions allied with former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front launched an attack on regime positions in the city's east.

The attack began early Sunday "with two car bombs and several suicide attackers" on the Jobar district, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Rebels then advanced into the nearby Abbasid Square area, seizing several buildings and firing a barrage of rockets into multiple Damascus neighbourhoods, Abdel Rahman said.

Government forces responded with nearly a dozen air strikes on Jobar, he added.

Syrian state television reported that the army was "thwarting an attack by terrorists" with artillery fire and had ordered residents to stay inside.

It aired footage from Abbasid Square, typically buzzing with activity but now empty except for the sound of shelling.

Correspondents in Damascus said army units had sealed off the routes into the square, where a thick column of smoke was rising into the cloudy sky.

Several schools announced they would close through Monday, and many civilians cowered inside in fear of stray bullets and shelling.

- 'From defensive to offensive' -

Control of Jobar -- which has been a battleground for more than two years -- is divided between rebels and allied jihadists and government forces.

According to the Observatory, the Islamist Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group and the Fateh al-Sham Front -- known as Al-Nusra Front before it broke ties with Al-Qaeda -- are present in Jobar.

Government forces have long sought to push the rebels out of the district because of its proximity to the city centre in Damascus.

But with Sunday's attack, Abdel Rahman said, "rebels have shifted from a defensive position in Jobar into an offensive one".

"These are not intermittent clashes -- these are ongoing attempts to advance," he said.

The Observatory said rebels had launched the attack as a way to relieve allied fighters in the nearby districts of Barzeh, Tishreen and Qabun from government attacks.

"Nine regime forces and at least 12 Islamist rebels were killed" in those districts over the last 24 hours, the Observatory said.

More than 320,000 people have been killed since Syria's conflict erupted six years ago with protests against Assad's rule.

After a government crackdown, the uprising turned into an all-out war that has drawn in world powers on nearly all sides.

On Sunday, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to destroy Syria's air defence systems after they fired ground-to-air missiles at Israeli warplanes on Friday.

Syria's army said it shot down an Israeli jet and hit another as they were carrying out early morning strikes near the famed desert city of Palmyra.

Israel denied any planes were hit and said it was targeting weapons bound for Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, which is backing Assad in Syria.

The United Nations has sponsored peace talks to end the conflict since 2012, to no avail.

Government representatives and opposition figures are set to meet for a fourth round of negotiations on March 23 in Switzerland.

 

US warns Iran over imprisoned Americans

Saudi King sets up new state security agency

Kuwait protests to Lebanon over Hezbollah training

30 extremists in Sinai operations

Foreign food chains hoping for taste of Iran market

Three Palestinians shot dead in Jerusalem

Nearly 360 injured in Turkey by magnitude 6.7 quake

UN says Saudi to blame for deadly Yemen strike on civilians

Police fire tear gas to disperse Morocco protest

Germany reviews arms sales to Turkey

Hezbollah launches Syria border operation

China calls for Gulf crisis talks

Israel bars men under 50 from Jerusalem Old City prayers

Intensifying Jihadist-rebel clashes in Syria's Idlib

Rebel ambush kills 28 regime fighters near Damascus

Turkey slams 'dangerous' Cyprus energy plans

Saudi prince 'arrested over leaked abuse videos'

Israel boosts 'security measures' as Al-Aqsa tensions simmer

Kuwait expels Iranian diplomats over 'terror' cell

Germany vows to overhaul Turkey ties as row escalates

Home cooked meals a relief for fighters in Syria's Raqa

US maintains designation of Iran as top 'state sponsor'

US halting support for Syria rebels

30 civilians dead in anti-IS strikes in Syria

Palestinian civilians urge ICC to speed up probe

Turkey PM opts for stability in light cabinet reshuffle

UN aid flight carrying journalists barred from Yemen

Former IS slaves fight for revenge in Raqa

US, Iran trade tit-for-tat sanctions

20 Yemeni civilians killed in air strike

14 killed in opposition infighting in Syria's Idlib

Morocco sentences 25 to prison over W. Sahara killings

Egypt police kill top militants

Heavy rainfall hits Istanbul causing transport chaos

Palestinians protest Israeli security measures at Al-Aqsa compound

Saudi police question woman who wore miniskirt

Rebels, US-backed Kurds clash in northern Syria

Netanyahu says Hungary is 'standing up for' Israel

Lebanon army to launch operation near Syria border

Morocco delays currency reform amid speculation

Iran parliament vows to fight US 'adventurism'

4 killed in suicide car bomb at Kurdish checkpoint in Syria

Israel opposes Syria truce deal over Iran presence

Egypt to end visas on arrival for Qatari citizens

Erdogan to visit Qatar, Saudi Arabia