Syrian forces on Sunday launched an all-out counter-offensive as rebels claimed the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was on “the verge of collapse.”
Forces led by Assad’s brother used helicopter gunships attacked dissidents and rebels as clashes raged in the once-impregnable capital of Damascus and the key city of Aleppo.
Clashes in the Damascus neighborhood of Barzeh left scores dead and triggered an exodus of residents, as a rebel commander appeared in a video saying the battle to “liberate” Aleppo had begun.
The official SANA news agency announced that government forces had “cleansed” the capital’s Qaboon neighborhood of “terrorists.”
Assad has repeatedly termed the over 30,000-strong rebel Free Syrian Army – comprised almost entirely of army defectors – mounting an increasingly effective insurgency against Assad's now-teetering regime, as "terrorists."
The rebel Free Syrian Army’s military council head General Mustafa al-Sheikh told reporters “a real war of attrition” was underway in Damascus.
“The regime is collapsing, the speed at which it is falling has increased. That means it will use greater violence in order to try and save itself,” said Sheikh.
Meanwhile, state television aired footage reportedly from Qaboon showing dead bodies and weapons, communications equipment and money it said was captured from rebels.
It said some of the rebels killed held identity cards from Jordan and Egypt, accusing foreign countries of training and sending insurgents.
But it denied helicopter gunships were being used inside the capital.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said “the feared Fourth Brigade” commanded by Assad’s younger brother Maher was carrying out the Barzeh attack.
“Troops have stormed the northwestern Barzeh district of Damascus with tanks and armored personnel carriers,” the British-based group’s director Rami Abdul Rahman said, adding that snipers were deployed on rooftops.
Nationwide, 123 people were killed in violence on Sunday, 59 of them civilians. Human rights groups say over 19,000 people – most of them civilians – have been killed in the 16-month popular uprising turned civil war threatening Assad's regime.
Observers note that the Syrian crisis did not begin with calls for Assad's ouster, but rather calls for political reform as the Arab Spring erupted throughout the region.
It was only after weeks of increasingly bloody repression in March and April of 2011 that Syria's dissident leaders began calling for an end to Assad's regime.