DAMASCUS, Syria — Six months after being driven out of central Damascus, rebel fighters are battling to gain control of it.
They have launched a concerted campaign against military bases and the international airport, within an arc of opposition strongholds that now encircle the capital.
After recent rebel attacks on military checkpoints and bases along the 15-mile highway between southwest Damascus and the international airport prompted the airport’s two-day closure, authorities last week insisted Syria’s only international commercial airline hub had reopened.
But a GlobalPost reporter trying to drive on the highway toward the airport was stopped by Syrian soldiers who said the road was closed because they could not guarantee safe passage.
Several airlines with regular service to Damascus, such as Emirates and Egypt Air, said they had canceled flights. British Airways’ BMI stopped flying to Damascus in May. Royal Jordanian stopped in July.
“We are calling on civilians not to come to the airport or its highway because it is now a military operation,” Abu Mohammed, a rebel fighter carrying out surveillance just a few hundred meters from the airport’s southern entrance, told GlobalPost.
“The airport has been out of service for a week and all employees are stuck inside. They are afraid to leave because they know we can hit any car on the highway.”
Two airport employees were reportedly killed on Friday after their car was hit driving along the airport highway. A spokesman for the Damascus Military Council, which commands the majority of rebel units around the capital, said attacks on the airport and vehicles using its highway were now justified, as it had been declared a military zone.
The airport is isolated among the impoverished satellite towns south of Damascus that are strongholds of the opposition. Abu Mohammed claimed rebels were controlling all neighborhoods adjacent to the airport highway, except Jaramana, a Druze and Christian town still considered pro-regime.
Almost all roads in and out of the capital were blocked with tanks and military buses on Friday, with checkpoints preventing anyone except soldiers and secret police from moving around, the first time in the 21-month rebellion the capital has been in compete lockdown.
Soldiers also turned back a GlobalPost reporter trying to drive into central Damascus from the southern Nahr Eisha intersection. A man transporting his elderly mother into a city center hospital was eventually allowed to pass after soldiers checked the engine for hidden explosives.
On the deserted road south, back out of the city, explosions rang out and black smoke filled the winter sky. Regime forces relentlessly bombed the area as they tried to wrest back control of rebel-held positions.
Any semblance of normality in the capital has now evaporated as power cuts from damaged stations plunge large areas of the city into extended blackouts. Normally traffic-clogged main roads are all but empty of cars and residents adhere to a self-imposed curfew, with only a handful of people venturing outside after dark.
A Western diplomat still serving in Damascus said the strength of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the capital, as well as their superior training and firepower, meant rebels had no immediate prospects of toppling the regime.
But with the rebel seizure of three strategic military bases in northern Syria, the diplomat said the conflict had entered “a new phase.”
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“The regime may soon have to abandon the North and the East to the rebels, several important military bases having already been taken and little resistance left, including supply lines,” he said. “It’s likely what we have seen in Aleppo will come to Damascus, but with more intense fighting, greater casualties and certainly a higher level of destruction.”
Rebels said the strategy in attacking Damascus airport — which has resulted in a number of casualties, including two Austrian UN peacekeepers — was to deny the regime a crucial lifeline to its key allies, Iran and Russia.
Tehran now openly declares its military assistance to the Assad regime. And flight records published by ProPublica recently showed that Russia — in addition to providing the bulk of the Assad regime’s arms — had flown 240 tons of bank notes, believed to be Syrian Pounds printed in Russia, into Damascus airport between July and mid-September.
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Rebels have also sought to surround the Mezze military airport, the regime’s most critical military supply line inside the capital itself, from positions in Daraya and Madameya. Both those neighbors are being systematically flattened by relentless airstrikes, according to local activists interviewed by GobalPost.
Activists in Daraya said several people had died after inhaling what they described as “poisonous smoke” that “burns through the tarmac on the road.” Video uploaded to YouTube earlier this month showed bright white clouds of smoke over Daraya reminiscent of white phosphorous bombs.
Bounded to its north by the Qassioun Mountain, central Damascus is now encircled in a roughly 240 degree arc from the northeast to the southwest by neighborhoods hostile to Assad and hosting rebel fighters, who in recent weeks have used heavier weapons, including surface to air missiles and mortars.
Communities that were once hotbeds of peaceful civil protest — painting banners, chanting songs and marching — are now battlefields of broken concrete where rebels say they are planning not for peace talks but for the death of the president.
A protester carried a banner this Friday that rejected the call by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for peacekeepers to be deployed in Syria.
“The reason? Peacekeepers are meant to separate combatants, thus preventing the possibility of reaching a military resolution to the current conflict with one side triumphing over the other,” wrote Syria analyst and fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Ammar Abdulhamid.
Rebel commanders say they now have a coordinated plan to tighten the noose around the regime’s key strongholds — including the presidential palace.
“We have begun the second stage of controlling Damascus city by moving from the rural areas into the suburbs and then into the city’s districts,” Abu Omar, commander of a rebel unit fighting in Mleha, five miles southeast of the city, told GlobalPost.
Listing the neighborhoods that his rebel counterparts in northeast Damascus now control, Abu Omar pledged his forces would join in a pincer movement as fighters converge on Muhajreen, site of Assad’s palace, office and home. Last month, rebels attempted to mortar the palace for the first time, but overshot.
“We have plans for all operations,” Abu Omar said. “We are not fighting as a reaction but pro-actively. We want to control Damascus from all sides and lay siege to it before we launch the third stage of the battle, moving from the countryside, to the suburbs, to the city’s districts.”
Hugh Macleod reported from Beirut. A GlobalPost journalist, whose identity has been kept secret for security reasons, reported from Damascus.