Middle East File: “Fierce” fighting in Damascus: Free Syrian Army downs helicopter gunship, infiltrates national security HQ, plants bomb, kills Assad’s DM, brother in law; Syria pulls troops from Golan Heights region to suppress rebellion; Syria’s ex-ambassador to Iraq: Assad may have used chemical weapons in Homs
July 18, 2012Posted by on
– July 19, 2012 Update: New Clashes in Damascus as Rebels Attack Army Positions near Prime Minister’s Office, Council of Ministers Complex, Damascus University, and Iranian Embassy (source)
Yesterday, reports Reuters, Syrian government troops and rebel forces began the third day of some of the fiercest fighting to hit Syria’s capital since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011. Security forces and armored vehicles surrounded rebellious areas such as the southern district of Midan, but were unable to rout opposition fighters.
Video uploaded to the Internet by anti-regime activists showed men in jeans hiding in sandbagged alleyways, firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Black columns of smoke billowed over the capital. Activists said artillery and rocket fire hit the opposition-controlled suburb of Tadamon. Residents in another district, Midan, said snipers were deployed on rooftops. “There are troops everywhere, I can hear ambulances,” said a resident near Midan. “It feels like a war in Damascus.” Not surprisingly, state television has said little about the pitched battles in the capital, referring only to security operations targeting “terrorist groups.”
Also on Tuesday, the rebel Free Syrian Army, which is based in southern Turkey, announced that is had shot down a helicopter gunship over Damascus. “Yes, we have shot down a helicopter over the district of Qaboon,” the FSA’s Joint Command spokesperson told the AFP news agency via Skype, without supplying details. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that “according to several witnesses, a helicopter fell after being hit by several rebel shots.” An activist who identified himself as Abu Omar said: “After pounding the districts of Qaboon, Barzeh and Harasta, the helicopter’s fuel tank was hit by a rocket. The helicopter then fell near Qaboon.”
In a more serious blow to the Ba’athist regime, FSA commander Riad al-Asaad stated that his forces carried out an attack in Damascus that killed Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha and his deputy, General Assef Shawkat, who was also Assad’s brother-in-law. General Hassan Turkmani, assistant to the Syrian vice president, also perished as a result of the bomb that exploded at national security HQ. The former Syrian Army general said, in a phone interview from his command center in Turkey, that his forces planted the bomb inside the room where senior government officials were meeting on Wednesday. He insisted the attack marked “the beginning of the end of the regime.” Rajha, Shawkat, and Turkmani are pictured above.
The latest eruption of violence in the Syrian capital comes as United Nations envoy Kofi Annan is visiting Moscow to promote a peace plan for Syria. He will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, but Russia still resists NATO’s demand for Assad’s resignation.
In a related story, Israel’s military intelligence chief, Major General Aviv Kochavi, revealed that the Syrian government had withdrawn troops from the region bordering the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967, reportedly with the intent of redeploying the army to Damascus, to crush FSA guerrillas. In a security briefing to a Knesset committee, Kochavi estimated that Assad “will not survive the uprising, even if it takes some more time.” He said that 13,000 soldiers and officers had defected from the Syrian Army while, according to an Israeli Defense Forces spokesman, 60 to 70 senior officers had been killed by the opposition.
Israel is closely monitoring events in Syria, a country with which it has no relations and is technically in a state of war since 1973. Jerusalem has expressed concern about the fate of Syria’s stocks of chemical weapons, which consist of sarin nerve agent, mustard gas, and cyanide. Last Friday, US officials said that Syria had started moving its huge arsenal of chemical weapons, part of which was secretly inherited from Iraq’s Ba’athist regime prior to the US-led invasion in early 2003.
For its part, the White House has warned the Syrian government that Damascus will be held accountable for safeguarding any chemical weapons in its possession. US and Israeli officials are unsure whether the recent movement of Syria’s chemical weapons is merely a security precaution amid the country’s civil war or indicative of other plans. “There are certain responsibilities that go along with the handling and storage and security of those chemical weapons,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters while accompanying President Barack Hussein Obama aboard Air Force One.
Nawaf Fares, who was Syria’s ambassador to Iraq before his defection on July 11, told BBC News on Monday that Assad will not hesitate to use chemical weapons against opposition forces and may have already deployed them. From his refuge in Qatar, Fares said: “I am convinced that if Bashar Assad’s regime is further cornered by the people – he would use such weapons. There is information, unconfirmed information, that chemical weapons have been used in Homs. It is absolutely sure that this government will fall in a short time. We wish for this time to be short so that more sacrifices are reduced.”
Previously, Fares served as governor in several Syrian provinces and held senior posts in the ruling Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party and Syria’s security apparatus. Fares’ assertions concerning Assad bring to mind the nefarious activities of another Ba’athist dictator, namely Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who employed chemical weapons against his country’s Kurdish population in the late 1980s.