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Resurgent Syrian Rebels Reach Doorstep of Damascus

BEIRUT — For the first time in years, Syrian insurgents have advanced on the outskirts of Damascus, demonstrating that they can take territory around the capital despite a long string of defeats around the country.

On the third day of fierce fighting Tuesday on the northeastern edge of Damascus, Islamist rebel groups and Qaeda-linked jihadists seized an industrial area about a mile from the historic Old City, seeking to connect the isolated rebel enclave of Qaboun with the larger swath of territory they control east of the city.

Plumes of smoke rose over the insurgent-held northeastern districts of Jobar and Qaboun as the government carried out scores of airstrikes, while rebel shells struck what are normally busy areas around Abasiyeen Square.

Streets were largely deserted, residents said, blocked by the army and allied militias trying to contain and push back the assault. SANA, the state news agency, said 15 people had been injured by insurgent rockets and shelling.

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A rebel fighter fired a heavy machine gun on Sunday in Jobar, a district east of Damascus. Credit Amer Almohibany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It was not immediately clear if the assault had any staying power on the ground or was more of a political message to counter the impression that the government — after seizing the eastern half of Aleppo from rebels last year — had essentially won the war.

It seemed unlikely that the offensive could shift the balance of power, but it was a reminder that the government has struggled to keep areas it controls entirely secure. Last week, a suicide bomber carried out a deadly attack in a Damascus courthouse, killing more than 30 people.

The government has been pounding the rebel-held areas to the east of Damascus for more than a month, despite a nominal cease-fire that was supposed to be maintained during new rounds of peace talks in Geneva and in Astana, Kazakhstan.

None of the rebel groups in the offensive on northeast Damascus are among the ones being backed in a covert Central Intelligence Agency program. But Mohammad al-Alloush, the leader of the Army of Islam, one of the groups involved in the assault, is nominally the chief opposition negotiator in the Geneva peace talks.

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In East Ghouta on Tuesday, Syrian civil defense volunteers prepared to bury a member of their ranks who was killed in an airstrike on a rebel-held village. Credit Amer Almohibany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

With their monthlong offensive, government forces appear to be trying to isolate the besieged suburbs of East Ghouta further to eventually force the rebels there to face a prolonged battle like that of Aleppo or surrender.

That makes the districts of Jobar and Qaboun, and neighboring Barzeh, a crucial area for both sides; it is the gateway to the business and tourism center of Damascus, where relatively normal life has been a symbol of the government’s continuing control over the capital during six years of conflict. For the rebels, the area contains the smuggling tunnels that help supply the encircled area, supplementing the food that can be grown there.

A main highway out of Damascus passes nearby, and during lulls in the fighting, when the road is passable, drivers survey a landscape of jagged shells of destroyed buildings.

Rebels initially gained ground in a surprise attack on Sunday. Government command posts were hit by two suicide bombs detonated by fighters from Tahrir al-Sham, the new name adopted by the Nusra Front after it claimed to shed its affiliation with Al Qaeda. Then rebel groups including Faylaq al-Sham, the Army of Islam and Ahrar al-Sham advanced.

But the government responded in force. Elite units, regular troops, irregulars in jeans carrying Kalashnikovs, members of foreign militias and armored vehicles could be seen near the front line on Sunday and Monday. They managed to take back the territory, but on Tuesday, the insurgents hit back and regained much of the contested ground.

Source: NYT > World

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