Syria war deepens: Damascus sees worst fighting yet

Fighting has intensified in the capital, a day after the Red Cross declared the conflict a 'civil war' and reminded combatants of the rules of war.

Shaam News Network/Reuters/Handout
A Syrian opposition flag is seen at al-Tadamun area in Damascus Sunday.

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Heavy fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces raged for a second day in Damascus in what activists called the worst fighting since the Syrian conflict began 17 months ago, suggesting the crisis has reached a new stage.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local activists within Damascus told the Associated Press that the capital was the scene of gunfire and explosions Monday morning – marking the first time fighting took place in daylight hours.  Activist Mustafa Osso also told the AP that combat briefly shut down the highway between the city and Damascus International Airport: an unprecedented development, according to Mr. Osso.

"It seems there is a new strategy to bring the fighting into the center of the capital," Osso said, referring to the rebels who fight under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. "The capital used to be safe. This will trouble the regime."

Activists in Damascus also reported a major deployment of armored vehicles to the city's central district of Midan on Monday, which they called the largest deployment of armor during the uprising so far, according to Reuters.

"The rebels are trying to hold the army off in al-Zahra al-Jadeeda [neighborhood]. There is fighting there and the sound of bombardment and rocket-propelled grenades is echoing from there," Radeef, an opposition activist, told Reuters by phone from Midan. "Armored vehicles are now deployed in the rest of Midan and army snipers have taken positions on rooftops."

Syrian army defector Maj. Gen. Adnan Salo told Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat that rebels now control 60 percent of the country, and said limited military intervention from NATO would topple President Bashar al-Assad's regime, reports Haaretz.

"All we need from NATO are two air attacks on the presidential palace to topple the regime and we will be able to control all the Syrian cities," Gen. Salo told the newspaper.

The BBC adds that mortar fire was reportedly heard on the southern edge of the city and a government military convoy was attacked by rebels in the Kfar Sousa district of the city to the west. 

The uptick in violence in Damascus comes just a day after the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the situation in Syria to be a civil war, thereby applying international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, to the conflict. The ICRC's declaration opens the door to prosecutions for war crimes by any combatants who target civilians or abuse detained military captives.

Previously, the ICRC had restricted its assessment of the scope of the conflict to the hotspots of Idlib, Homs, and Hama, but the organization has determined the violence has spread beyond those areas.

The declaration follows reports last Thursday of a massacre in the village of Tremseh, where initial reports said that Syrian military used heavy weapons on civilians, killing more than 150 people, writes Middle East Online. Both the use of heavy weapons and the targeting of civilians would be in violation of promises that the Syrian government made to special UN envoy Kofi Annan, who said Friday that he was "shocked and appalled" by the reports, according to Reuters. But the Syrian government denied that it had targeted civilians or used heavy weapons, but had rather attacked and killed armed rebels. 

Reuters notes that Sander van Hoorn, a Dutch journalist who reached Tremseh, said he found evidence of artillery shelling in the village, contradicting that portion of the government's claims.  But he added that he had yet to find signs of a massacre in Tremseh.

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