Battles in Damascus
Fighting between the Syrian army and the armed opposition has now reached the Syrian capital Damascus, threatening the future of the regime, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
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From top: a Syrian peers out of his family's tent at the Al-Bashabsheh refugee camp, in Ramtha, Jordan, Tuesday; bodies of unidentified people in graves in Deraa, Monday
For the first time since the start of the Syrian uprising some 15 months ago, fighting between the Syrian army and the opposition revolutionary brigades has been taking place in Damascus.
Heavily populated areas such as Al-Midan, Al-Tadamun, Al-Zahra, Kafr Susa and others have become battlegrounds between the two sides, with the military using light and medium weapons and bombardments with mortar shells in an attempt to crush the armed opposition forces.
The battles have now continued for several days, and thousands of residents have fled to quieter districts, beseeching the UN monitors in Damascus to stop the attacks.
Regime security and military forces have placed thousands of families under siege, but have not sought to move into the areas of the city concerned, fearing that they are sympathetic to the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The joint commands of the FSA and the opposition military councils and brigades have declared the beginning of "Operation Damascus Volcano" in the country and have pledged to shake the regime to its foundations.
As street battles broke out in some districts of Damascus, perceived as a fortress of the regime given the heavy presence of security and military forces there, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared this week that "civil war" had now broken out in Syria.
According to the Red Cross, the battles were originally concentrated in certain specific areas but had now spread to other areas. It called for the application of international humanitarian law everywhere in Syria.
The fact that the FSA has entered Damascus and the Syrian uprising has now escalated into armed conflict does not mean that the battle is over, however.
Russia, for one, has continued to stand firmly behind the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and it has refused to countenance its ouster, blocking international action.
As Damascus districts came under attack by regular military forces, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia had not modified its position on the conflict in Syria, saying that many Syrians supported the Al-Assad regime and reiterating his country's opposition to a further UN Security Council resolution.
Former French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé responded to Lavrov's statement by describing Russia's continuing support of al-Assad as "criminal, [which] is not a strong enough term".
Russia's hardcore position in support of the Syrian regime caused several Syrian opposition groups to visit Moscow last week, in the hope of convincing Russia to abandon Al-Assad and his regime, though these visits ended in failure.
A delegation from the opposition Syrian Democratic Forum (SDF) and another from the Syrian National Council (SNC) visited Moscow, both leaving with the impression that though the Russians were not committed to the Al-Assad regime, they were not ready to join the West in condemning it.
There was also a possibility that the Russians could be persuaded to support a scenario similar to that which took place in Yemen, where bloodshed was ended through a peaceful political solution, the opposition groups said.
However, "the Russian position needs to be more balanced," said Michel Kilo, leader of the SDF delegation, after the visit. "Russia is not committed to the regime, but it has its own views on the alternative, although delaying a solution makes for a bigger problem every day."
"Those who are worried about arms going to the regime are acting in favour of those who already have weapons by obstructing a solution," he said.
Abdel-Basset Sida, head of the SNC delegation, said that "the Russian side is not committed to Al-Assad or to repressive institutions, but when discussing details there were differences of opinion. As the Russians dig in their heels, the situation in Syria is veering into the unknown, and the future will be catastrophic. This is not in anyone's interests, including Russia's."
Over recent months, Moscow has tried to appear as an honest broker in the Syrian crisis, but instead it has been viewed by the Syrian opposition forces and the popular movement as being biased in favour of the Syrian regime.
The Syrian popular movement and revolutionaries now see Russia as part of the problem, not part of the solution, as a result, and this has meant that there may be little role for Russia in Syria should the uprising succeed.
SNC spokesman George Sabra said that some signs of modification in Russia's position had started to emerge, however.
"The excuse for Russia's policies has always been that the opposition is not united and that it does not have an agenda that qualifies it to take power during the transitional phase after the regime is toppled," Sabra told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"But now that the opposition has unified at the recent Cairo conference, Russia has no reason to continue its opposition to the Syrian revolution. There are now signs that it may be changing its views on the international stage."
Hazem Al-Nahar, a leading SDF figure, also said that "Russia does not want to disengage from the Syrian regime at this point, but we understand that it could approve a scenario similar to what happened in Yemen after it has been reassured that alternatives are in place. It wants a guaranteed mechanism for the gradual transfer of power in Syria."
While the meetings between the Syrian opposition and the Russian leadership have not yet yielded a solution, it is certain that Russia, which rejects any foreign intervention in the Syria crisis, is continuing to interfere in the country by supplying the regime with weapons and blocking international action against it.
According to the opposition, Moscow has been throwing a wrench into the gears of a solution, wanting to ensure that it plays a role in any solution to the crisis that will at least equal that played by the US.
It is seeking a settlement that will protect its regional and international interests, but according to many observers Moscow does not have enough leverage to pressure the Syrian regime.
Russian statements about the Syrian crisis over the past year have indicated that Moscow is worried about its interests in the country and fears the possible effects of the Arab revolutions on Russia.
Russia has also been alarmed by its exclusion from mapping out a new regional order in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, and even in Yemen. Moscow has found itself in a position that may be impossible to sustain, and it may be willing to barter its position on Syria in return for concessions by other powers on key international issues.
The Syrian opposition still doubts that Russia will allow the passage of a UN Security Council resolution based on Chapter VII of the UN Charter and allowing measures ranging from diplomatic to economic sanctions and foreign military intervention in Syria.
It adds that Russia is effectively forcing the international community to take steps outside the Security Council.
"The Russians will never allow the passage of such a resolution because an international solution is not yet ready," Monzer Khadam, spokesman for the opposition Coordination Committee of the Forces for Democratic Change, told the Weekly.
"However, the Security Council could adopt a Russian draft resolution because there is no alternative right now and because the West does not want Russia to sink further into the mess in Syria."
Meanwhile, protesters in Syria itself want to see ties with Russia severed, and they have been urging all opposition forces to boycott any invitations or meetings with the Russians in future.
Nevertheless, most of the country's opposition still believes that diplomacy is important and that Russia has a key role to play in any solution to the Syrian crisis, adding that negotiating channels with Russia should remain open.
The fact that the battles have now reached Damascus signals a change in the balance of power between regime forces and the protesters, and it could be the beginning of a new and more brutal chapter in the Syrian uprising, even as the possibility of a political solution seems to be diminishing by the day.
It is against this background that many observers believe that Russia, whether intentionally or not, could be undermining the peaceful struggle in Syria and accelerating its militarisation.