As Syria’s escalating conflict intensified, fierce clashes and military shelling were reported in the country’s two largest cities- Damascus and Aleppo. Government troops made use of helicopters and tanks in an effort to regain control of the rebel-held areas.
Rebels make major advances in past week
The increase in violence comes as rebels made major advances last week, taking control of several parts of Damascus, seizing border crossings and killing four members of Assad’s inner circle in a lethal bomb attack. The attack occurred when rebel forces detonated a remotely-activated explosion device during a meeting of ministers and security officials. The government described the attack as a ‘suicide bombing’, however, deputy head of the opposition Free Syria Army, Col. Malek al-kurdi, issued a statement confirming that a remote control was used to explode the device. The officials killed were Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha; Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat - Assad's brother-in-law; Hasan Turkmani, Assad's security adviser and assistant vice president; and Syria’s intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar, state TV reported.
Until last week, Damascus, was viewed as a bastion of support for Assad and had seen relatively few outbreaks of violence. However, following the blast, an uprising began in the capital and the second-largest city of Aleppo, bringing the conflict to Syria’s major population centres. In the Mezzeh district of Damascus, one activist reported that at least 8 were killed and 60 injured when government forces conducted a full-scale military assault on the area, which is home to many embassies and offices.
"Massive psychological blow" to Assad regime
The events of the past week have dealt a substantial blow to the Assad regime, not least causing Assad’s family to flee the country. One analyst with Maplecroft, a think tank that provides risk assessments on global business, said that the bomb attack was “massive psychological blow” and will accelerate Assad’s “demise”. Another analyst with Chatham House, Rime Allaf, suggested that “the regime itself is crumbling”.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also commented on the recent developments in the conflict stating that they show “a real escalation in fighting.” He added that it “tells us that this is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control, and for that reason it's extremely important that the international community, working with other countries that have concerns in that area, have to bring maximum pressure on Assad to do what's right, and to step down and to allow for that peaceful transition.” Panetta’s comments came as the U.S. announced a new round of sanctions against members of the Syrian government on Wednesday.
New figures on casualties
This last week also saw The Syrian Observatory for Human rights, an opposition group based in Britain, publish figures on the number of people killed in the fighting. The group reported that the total number of deaths is over 19,000, the highest number in any of the Arab uprisings so far.
Report: New clashes reported in Syria's 2 biggest cities (LA Times, 23 July, 2012)
Report: Syria’s two largest cities rocked by clashes (Washington Post, 19 July, 2012)
Report: Syria troops hit back at rebels in Damascus and Aleppo (BBC, 23 July, 2012)
Report: Top Syrian officials killed in major blow to al-Assad's regime (CNN, 19 July 2012)