BEIRUT — Syrian rebels fired grenades at tanks and troops while regime armor shelled Damascus neighborhoods on Monday, sending terrified families fleeing the most sustained and widespread fighting in the capital since the start of the uprising 16 months ago.
A ring of fierce clashes nearly encircled the heavily guarded capital as rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad pushed the civil war that has been building in Syria’s impoverished provinces closer to the seat of power.
While the clashes were focused in a string of neighborhoods in the city’s southwest, for many of its 4 million people the violence brought scarily close to home the strife that has deeply scarred other Syrian cities.
In high-end downtown cafes frequented by the business and government elite tightly bound to the Assad regime, customers watched as black smoke billowed on the horizon and the boom of government shells reverberated in the distance.
“Without a doubt, this is all anyone is talking about today,” a Damascus activist who gave his name as Noor Bitar said via Skype. “The sounds of war are clear throughout the city. They are bouncing off the buildings.”
Syria’s violence has grown increasingly bloody and chaotic in recent months as the uprising has morphed from a peaceful protest movement seeking political change into an armed insurgency seeking to topple the regime by force.
Anti-regime activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed, and the government says it has lost more than 4,000 security officers. It does not provide numbers of civilian dead.
International diplomacy has failed to stop the violence, and world powers remain deeply divided over who is responsible and how to stop it. The U.S. and many Western nations have called on Assad to leave power, while Russia, China and Iran have stood by the regime.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the West of using blackmail to secure a U.N. Security Council resolution that could allow the use of force in Syria. Lavrov objected to the text of a Western-backed resolution that calls for sanctions and invokes Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which can be enforceable militarily.
He said Russia had been told that if it opposed the resolution, Western nations would not extend the mandate of a U.N. mission sent to Syria to monitor a cease-fire. “We consider it to be an absolutely counterproductive and dangerous approach,” Lavrov said.
International envoy Kofi Annan, who has made little progress in brokering a political solution in Syria, met Russian leaders in Moscow on Monday. The meeting — the latest in Annan’s efforts to save his faltering peace plan — comes a day after the conflict crossed an important symbolic threshold, with the international Red Cross formally declaring it a civil war, a status with implications for potential war-crimes prosecutions.
Monday’s fighting suggested that deep cracks were appearing in the tightly controlled facade of calm that has insulated Damascus from violence throughout the uprising.
Damascus — and Syria’s largest city, Aleppo — are both home to elites who have benefited from close ties to Assad’s regime, as well as merchant classes and minority groups who worry their status will suffer if Assad falls.
But for months, rebels have been gaining strength in poorer towns and cities in the Damascus countryside. Some activists suggested Monday that recent government crackdowns in those areas had pushed rebels into the city, where they were determined to strike at the heart of the regime. “It seems there is a new strategy to bring the fighting into the center of the capital,” said activist Mustafa Osso. “The capital used to be safe. This will trouble the regime.”