Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops battled rebels in the outskirts of Damascus on Wednesday and pressed on with a counteroffensive against opposition fighters in the south to prevent their advance on the capital.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops battled rebels in the outskirts of Damascus on Wednesday and pressed on with a counteroffensive against opposition fighters in the south to prevent their advance on the capital.
With the recent influx of better weapons and other foreign aid, the rebels have made major gains in the south, seizing military bases and towns in the strategically important region between Damascus and the border with Jordan, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the capital.
The opposition fighters hope to eventually storm Damascus from the south in their campaign to topple Assad.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday’s clashes have been focused on opposition strongholds around the capital, including the suburbs of Daraya and Harasta. Fighting also raged in and around the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its main commercial hub, they said.
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The activists said both sides sustained losses in Wednesday’s fighting on the two battlefields. Damascus suburbs and Aleppo have been the scene of major urban warfare in Syria’s 2-year-old uprising against Assad’s rule. The revolt started as peaceful protests inspired by other Arab Spring uprisings but later descended into civil war.
At least 28 rebels and 13 soldiers were killed in the fighting around Damascus, while 15 opposition fighters and 28 government troops died in the fighting in Aleppo on Wednesday, the Observatory said.
The group relies on a network of Syria-based activists that have been tracking the number of dead, injured and missing since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.
The government brought reinforcements to Damascus suburbs and further south on Sunday to regain control of areas the rebels recently captured between the Jordanian border and Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power.
Both sides consider Damascus the ultimate prize in the civil war.
The rebels now control large swaths of northern Syria, and last month captured their first provincial capital, the city of Raqqa. The also control whole districts of Aleppo.
The government has been hitting the rebel-held areas in the north with airstrikes in recent weeks, reclaiming some of the territory from the rebels, including several villages along the route that links Aleppo with its airport to the city’s east.
The rebels have been trying to capture the airport for months, in hope of having their own airstrip to receive aid flights. The airfield and much of the area around the airport, including an air base, remain under the regime’s control.
More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict, the United Nations says.
In London, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting with Syrian opposition leaders and Russia’s top diplomat, a day after saying the U.S. could soon step up aid to rebels in Syria.
Kerry, who arrived from the Middle east, is attending a lunch alongside the Syrian opposition’s interim prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, and other senior figures. He later meets one-on-one with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Russia has been Assad’s chief international ally.
During his stop in Israel, Kerry said the Obama administration was holding intense talks on how to boost aid to Syria’s rebels and that it was important to increase pressure on Assad’s regime to get it to the negotiating table.