In dozens of tanks and other armored vehicles, Syrian troops stormed rebellious areas near the capital yesterday, shelling neighborhoods that have fallen under the control of army dissidents. At least 62 people were killed in violence nationwide, activists said.
The wide-scale offensive near the capital suggested the regime is worried that military defectors could close in on Damascus, which has remained relatively quiet while most other Syrian cities have descended into chaos since the uprising began in March.
The rising bloodshed added urgency to Arab and Western diplomatic efforts to end the 10-month conflict.
In the past two weeks, army dissidents have become more visible, seizing several suburbs on the eastern edge of Damascus and setting up checkpoints where masked men wearing military attire and wielding assault rifles stop motorists and protect anti-regime protests.
Their presence so close to the capital is astonishing in tightly controlled Syria and suggests the Assad regime is either losing control or setting up a trap for the fighters before going on the offensive.
Damascus residents report hearing clashes in the nearby suburbs, particularly at night.
"The current battles taking place in and around Damascus may not yet lead to the unraveling of the regime, but the illusion of normalcy that the Assads have sought hard to maintain in the capital since the beginning of the revolution has surely unraveled," said Ammar Abdulhamid, a U.S.-based dissident, in his blog yesterday.
Soldiers riding some 50 tanks and dozens of armored vehicles stormed a belt of suburbs and villages on the eastern outskirts yesterday, a predominantly Sunni Muslim agricultural area known as al-Ghouta where large anti-regime protests have been held.
Some of the fighting was less than three miles from Damascus, in Ein Tarma, the closest yet to the capital.