With double bombing in Damascus, is Syria's frontline moving to the capital?

Battles around Damascus have important implications for Syria's conflict, but Aleppo is likely to remain the central focus until either the rebels or government forces can sustain the upper hand.

Syria 2011 Archives/AP
In this image taken from video obtained from the Syria 2011 Archives, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, black smoke rises from Syria's army command headquarters in Damascus, Syria, on Sept. 26, 2012.

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Yesterday was one of the deadliest days in Syria so far, with a human rights group reporting more than 300 people killed, including 14 in a high-profile rebel attack in the heavily fortified city of Damascus that has led some to wonder if fighting has shifted away from commercial hub Aleppo.

In a report released today, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that yesterday's 300-plus death toll included 55 people in the rural areas around Damascus and at least 40 more shot in the town of al-Dhiyabia near the capital, writes Reuters.  Reuters adds that other activists put the al-Dhiyabia toll, reportedly the result of a massacre committed by members of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, as high as 107. 

A new report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also released today, says that the conflict has displaced nearly 300,000 Syrian refugees, and will displace up to 700,000 by the end of the year.

The Syrian Observatory's tally also included 14 people killed in the twin bombing attack on Syria's military headquarters – and the following gun battle – in Damascus yesterday morning, about which new details and video have since emerged. 

Syrian state television aired CCTV footage, republished by the Daily Telegraph, of what it says were the two explosions. The first explosion appears to have been a suicide car bomb by the side of the road outside the military base; the video shows a white van pulling up to the curb and then exploding, with no one in its immediate vicinity.  An indeterminate amount of time later in the same video, another explosion is visible behind a building in the compound beyond the roadside.  The cause of the second explosion is not clear.

But activist Samir al-Shami told Reuters that the explosions were the result of a suicide car bomb followed by a second car bomb on the perimeter of the military base.

"Then the fighters went inside and clashed with security inside, while some of the men started to torch the building," he said. 

That tallied with accounts from residents who heard gunfire and smaller blasts after the first explosions.

"The explosions were very loud. They shook the whole city and the windows of our house were shuddering," one resident reached by telephone said.

In an article for Time, Rania Abouzeid cautions that the attacks in Damascus are not a sign that the battle will soon be shifting to the capital from the primary battleground of Aleppo.

Wednesday’s bombing is a psychological boost to the rebels, but what will it translate to on the ground? Is it a precursor to a sustained fight for Damascus? That’s unlikely given that Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its commercial hub, is still being fought over – a situation that has lasted for two months now. There, streets, and street corners, continue to regularly change hands, the to-ing and fro-ing eroding the social and material infrastructure of one of the world’s oldest cities. Aleppo’s battles are very parochial fights, sometimes over a patch of a single street, but they have vast national implications and until a decisive blow is dealt, either to the rebels or the loyalists, it’s unlikely that the overstretched rebels will make a sustained push for the capital.

The New York Times notes that the rebels around Aleppo have made inroads toward negating the Assad regime's major military advantage: its air powerCJ Chivers writes that the rebels, using infantry armed mostly with rifles, have been able to lay siege to Abu ad Duhur Air Base south of Aleppo.  The troops have had enough success at shooting down aircraft – at least two MIG fighters have been brought down – that the Syrian Air Force has stopped fights to and from the base.

“We are facing aircraft and shooting down aircraft with captured weapons,” said Jamal Marouf, a commander credited by the fighters with downing the first MIG-21 here. “With these weapons we are preventing aircraft from landing or taking off.”

...

For the rebels, managing to deny the use of this airfield has undermined the government’s ability to exert its full authority in some parts of the country. It has also improved the morale of fighters who remain severely outgunned.

The rebels’ boldness, and their success, have not been painless. The army units inside the base have tanks, artillery and mortars. When attacked, the soldiers often respond by firing barrages of high-explosive rounds into the nearby town, in what amounts to a tactic of collective punishment against civilians. The effects are evident in the center of town, where block after block of buildings have been shattered. “This is the army, taking revenge,” said another fighter, Abu Razaq.

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