Syrian army retakes Damascus areas captured by rebels
By BASSEM MROUE | Associated Press | Published: March 20, 2017
BEIRUT — Syrian government forces on Monday regained control of parts of Damascus that were attacked and captured by rebels and militants the previous day, with dozens killed on both sides during the fighting, the military and an activist group said.
The surprise rebel incursion, in which fighters sneaked into the city through hidden tunnels and set off car bombs, was the most serious infiltration in years into President Bashar Assad's seat of power.
The Levant Liberation Committee, a coalition of several militant groups led by al-Qaida's branch in Syria, and the independent Failaq al-Rahman faction spearheaded the blitz, which caught the Syrian military off guard.
Insurgent groups have repeatedly tried to break the defenses of Damascus in recent years. Sunday's incursion, however, was the most serious since 2012, when rebels captured several Damascus neighborhoods before being crushed by government forces.
The rebel gains, though short-lived, came against the backdrop of months of steady losses at the hands of government forces across the country.
Sunday's fighting centered on government-held territory between the Jobar and Qaboun neighborhoods, two besieged opposition enclaves. The ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham rebel faction said opposition fighters had "liberated" the area.
Syrian TV on Monday quoted an unnamed military official as saying the army "regained control of all the points that terrorists" had infiltrated on Sunday. It also quoted Russia's ambassador to Damascus, Alexander Kinshchak, as saying one of the embassy's buildings was hit with a shell during the clashes.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said the Syrian air force carried out more than 25 airstrikes on Jobar and nearby areas.
Lebanon's Al-Manar TV, run by the militant Hezbollah group, which is fighting along Assad's forces, reported that the elite Republican Guard took part in a counteroffensive against insurgents. The TV reported live from Jobar around noontime Monday as cracks of gunfire and explosions could be heard in the distance.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-run group that tracks the conflict, said that in all, 26 soldiers and pro-government gunmen were killed as well as 21 rebels. The Observatory said fighting was still underway Monday.
The government has been trying to pressure the rebels to surrender the pockets they hold in Damascus, following victories in the northern city of Aleppo, the central city of Homs and other Damascus suburbs.
On Monday, Assad received a delegation of Russian deputies, including the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the State Duma, Leonid Slutsky, to discuss revisions to the Syria constitution.
"We were looking carefully at the details of the constitutional process and the creation of a constitutional committee in parliament," Slutsky said, according to Russia's RIA Novosti news agency. "The creation of a constitutional committee in parliament is a revolution."
A 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution stipulates that Syrian political actors draft a new constitution as part of a transitional process to end the war.
The Russian lawmakers spent three hours with Assad and also discussed prisoner exchanges, according to Russian media.
Elsewhere, in central Syria, government forces closed the vital Damascus-Aleppo highway because of clashes with Islamic State militants nearby.
Meanwhile, Syrian state TV and the Observatory reported that an airstrike in the country's north - said to be by the U.S.-led coalition, which has been targeting the IS group in Syria for more than two years - had killed at least seven people, including five members of the same family.
The Observatory said the strike took place on Sunday in the village of Shabhar, in Raqqa province. Another activist group, the anti-IS organization called "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" named five members of the al-Matar family, who it said were killed in the attack.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Howard Amos in Moscow contributed to this report.