Blasts, renewed fighting erupt in Damascus
Heavy explosions rocked Damascus Saturday and helicopters circled overhead as rebels looked to be renewing their offensive in the Syrian capital, witnesses and activists said.
The fresh battles indicate that President Bashar Assad’s victories may be short-lived as armed rebel groups renew their efforts, possibly forcing the regime to shuffle military units to react to attacks stretching across the country.
The country’s violent civil war has intensified in the past weeks, as rebels focus their struggle on the country’s two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
"We heard heavy bombing since dawn," a witness in Damascus told The Associated Press, who requested anonymity out of fear for his personal safety.
"Helicopters are in the sky."
Saturday’s violence comes just two weeks after the government crushed a rebel run on the capital that included raids by fighters into the city’s downtown areas, as well as a daring bomb attack that killed four members of the president’s inner circle.
The fighting in Damascus appears to have drained the army’s resources, as the fighting in Aleppo continues into its second week. Aleppo lies 350 kilometres to the north of Damascus.
Friday, Syria’s official news agency SANA reported that government forces had hunted down the last of the “terrorist mercenaries” in the southern neighbourhood of Tadamon. SANA said it killed several “mercenaries” and wounded many others.
The uprising in Syria began in March 2011. What started as mostly peaceful protests against the regime has since transformed into a bloody civil war. Activists estimate more than 19,000 people have been killed.
The battle for Aleppo
Bilal Saab, a fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told CTV News Channel on Saturday that because Aleppo is the commercial capital it is an important victory for the rebels.
“Should they have control over Aleppo, they would have huge access to a number of material resources that they could use to sustain the insurgency against the government, so it is a crucial battle,” he said.
University of Montreal professor of political science Marie-Joelle Zahar agrees and said while it is too early to tell if the fighting is turning in favour of the rebels, it is clear is that the fight for Aleppo will be a “decisive one.”
Zahar told CTV News Channel on Saturday that as the violence continues in Syria, political alliances will play an increasingly important role.
On Friday, Syria reached out to one of its allies Russia. Senior Syrian officials pleaded with Moscow for financial loans and oil supplies -- a sign that Assad’s regime is feeling the pinch of international sanctions.
The country is believed to be quickly spending the $17 billion in foreign it was believed to have had at the beginning of Assad’s crackdown.
Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, who has led a delegation of several Cabinet ministers to Moscow over the past few days, told reporters Friday that the regime requested a Russian loan to replenish Syria’s currency reserves.
The reserves have been used up during the U.S. and European Union embargo on the country’s exports, he said.
Zahar said that while this is not the first time Syria has asked for Russian aid, it is the first time Moscow has not given a clear response.
“It isn’t events on the ground that are going to change things and everyone outside is aware of that, and maybe concerned about committing too much to what might be a losing party,” said Zahar.
Zahar pointed out that on Friday, U.S. President Barak Obama agreed to support the rebels fighting in Syria in any non-military ways.
“On both sides alliances are going to play a key role in the ability of the fighters on the ground to resist until the final outcome,” she said.
Russia has protected Syria from UN sanctions and continues to supply the regime with weapons. Russia, along with fellow UN Security Council member China, has blocked any plans that call on Assad to step down.
On Saturday, China said the West should be blamed for obstructing diplomatic and political efforts to bring peace and order to Syria.
Wang Kejian, a deputy director of north African and west Asian affairs at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told a news conference that Western countries had damaged and impaired the political process by pushing for regime change.
Wang repeated China's stance that the solution to the violence in Syria should be a political one and that China opposes any military intervention.
UN General Assembly denounces crackdown
The mounting violence in Syria caused the UN General Assembly to hold a special session on Friday.
During the session there was overwhelming support for a resolution denouncing the Syrian regime. The resolution demanded that the regime cease all violent attacks and called for its chemical and biological weapons to be locked down.
The motion passed with 133 votes in favor, 12 against and 31 abstentions.
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari called the resolution a piece of “theatre” that would only embolden the rebels.
Gordon Smith from the Centre for International Governance Innovation told CTV News Channel that Chinese and Russian resistance to a military intervention stems from a fear of citizen uprisings in their own country.
“Both China and Russia worry about parts of their country -- Chechnya and Tibet -- where there could also be the possibility of some kind of uprising,” he said.
“And what’s the international community going to do? Will it want to intervene there in their own sovereign territory?”
Smith also said he believes Friday’s resolution will have no effect on the Syrian crisis.
“The general assembly resolution is going to change nothing,” he said.
Smith believes a greater concern is the possibility that the violence may spill into neighbouring countries.
The resolution came just one day after Kofi Annan announced that he had stepped down from his role as UN special envoy to Syria.
Annan said he was resigning as of Aug. 31, stating that he could not proceed in the mission as he had received no support from world powers to intervene.
It is not clear who will take Annan’s place.
The fallout from the crisis in Syria continues to have a ripple effect in several different countries, affecting political and diplomatic relationships.
On Saturday a number of developments related to the ongoing violence occurred including the following:
- The Israeli military said it shot and wounded a Syrian man attempting to enter the Golan Heights. According to the Israeli military, several Syrians have tried to enter the Israeli-occupied region over the last few weeks.
- A group of 48 Iranian pilgrims who were headed to a holy Shiite shrine were kidnapped in a Damascus suburb. Since the uprising began, Iranians living in Syria have been the target of attacks, as they are often viewed as allies to the Syrian regime.
- China dismissed criticism that it and Russia have hindered the peace process in Syria and reaffirmed its belief that the West should be blamed for the ongoing crisis because it pushed for regime change rather than a diplomatic and political solution.
- A dozen protestors demonstrated in London to protest the presence of Syrian equestrian competitor Ahmad Saber Hamsho at the London 2012 Olympic Games. In June Hamsho – whose father is under sanctions for supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad -- told The Times of London that the Assad regime was “only protecting people from guys with weapons.”
With files from The Associated Press and CTV’s Middle East Bureau Chief Martin Seemungal