The battle for Damascus is coming

"This is the beginning of the end!" say activists.
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149 Syrians killed on Monday, 89 of them civilians

Free Syrian Army launches "Operation Damascus Volcano."

Watch LiveStream here [intermittent]

Assad is creating new space for the FSA by recalling forces to the capital for the fight there. He is even withdrawing forces from the Golan Heights to fight his real enemy.

"He's not afraid of Israel at this point, but mainly wants to augment his forces around Damascus," IDF Major General Aviv Kochavi reported to MPs.

He's more afraid of his own people than he is of Israel.

But often the FSA gets advanced warning of these troop movements. In the video below, they have destroyed an armored column that never made it to Damascus.

@Alexblx -> NO CAVALRY 4 ‪#Bashar‬! Reg forced 2 call 4 reinforcements 4 ‪#Damascus‬- But ‪#FSA‬ know when convoys move - & DESTROYED IT

The Telegraph this morning has:

Syria: Heavy gunfire in the heart of Damascus in third day of fighting in Syrian capital
11:53AM BST 17 Jul 2012
Rebel forces say they have started an assault called Operation Damascus Volcano.

The third day of fighting in the capital saw heavy machinegun fire around Sabaa Bahrat square in central Damascus on Tuesday, witnesses reported.

"Machinegun fire was heard in the Sabaa Bahrat square, and members of the security forces, armed with Kalashnikovs, ran across the square," site of the country's Central Bank, one witness said.

Shots were fired as fighters in anti-regime neighbourhoods of the capital clashed violently with the army, while regime forces deployed helicopters to fire into several districts.

A column of smoke could be seen on Tuesday billowing from the Midan district near the centre of Damascus, which has been pounded by regime troops since Monday.

Anti government demonstration kicked off today in the Shaghour area of Damascus today!

Military reinforcements entering Damascus | 17 July 2012

From the Egyptian Chronicles today we have:

#Syria Revolts : #Damascus Liberation Operation starts

And the battles between the Syrian Arab army “SAA” of El Assad regime and the opposition forces above them Free Syrian army “FSA” have reached to Damascus itself in a very big development in the last 48 hours.

Already Free Syrian Army has issued a statement from short awhile ago announcing that the battle to liberate Damascus has started and will not stop

The fight is now Al Midan neighborhood which witnessed protests and movements against the regime more than any other neighborhood in capital. Eye witnesses report that the exists and entrances of Damascus have been closed today.

Helicopters were flying all over the city since the morning , shelling some areas , it is literally crazy.

Here is a video alleged filmed in Qaboon area in Damascus showing helicopter hovering over the city.

Certain streets and squares have been completely closed up.
Here is a video clip filmed earlier today showing the entrance of the SAA tanks to Al Midan neighborhood.

Here is a video [of] a bus following SAA burnt by the FSA in Midan area.

According to some tweeps in Damascus regime forces asked the residents of Al Midan to evacuate it.

Unlike what you think Damascus is not as big as for instance Cairo according to my dear Syrian friends , it is much smaller.

The Russian media is claiming that the SAA managed to kill not less than 200 terrorist in this raid !! On the other hand we got rumors in Cairo that the FSA. Now some say that not less than 30 were reportedly killed there. Pro-Revolutionary Facebook Page claim that tens of thousands of rebel fighters from different Syrian government have arrived to Damascus. I think it is more of psychological warfare.

You can watch live stream from time to time her on Bambuser channel Kafor 1 , it is not active from couple of hours but it can be live in any time.

By the way there is a popular campaign n Egypt trying to encourage the public to boycott Chinese Ramadan plastic lentarns.

Meanwhile the Syrian FB pages are spreading ... safety instructions about missiles !! yes missiles !!

From the Syrian Youth Movement website we have this BBC News report:

Shooting was reported in one of the main central streets and a square housing the Central Bank.

There were also reports of tanks in the south-western area of Midan, and clashes involving helicopters in the north and north-east of the city.
Meanwhile a key Syrian defector, Nawaf Fares, the ex-ambassador to Iraq, has told the BBC the regime will not hesitate to use chemical weapons if it is cornered.

Mr Fares, the most senior Syrian politician to have defected to the opposition, also said that major bombings across Syria had been orchestrated by the government in collaboration with al-Qaeda.

‘Matter of time’
Violence is continuing to spread across Syria and in the capital Damascus as rebels – now better-equipped and more organised – confront the army and government-backed militia.

The rebel Free Syrian Army has said it has launched “Operation Damascus Volcano”, and has called for an escalation of attacks on regime targets and the blocking of main highways all around the country.

One of the biggest and most organised opposition groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, has called on all Syrians to join what it called a decisive battle.

Witnesses say the government’s military deployment in Damascus is the biggest since the 16-month uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad began.

Clashes were reported in a major thoroughfare, Baghdad Street, the first time fighting has reached central Damascus since the conflict began.

Also, machine-gun fire was reported in nearby Sabaa Bahrat square, site of the Central Bank and scene of several major pro-government demonstrations.

Activists reported continued clashes on the south-western side of the city, including in Midan.

“The army is shelling al-Midan hysterically; the collapsing regime has gone mad,” one activist told AFP.

Fighting is also said to have broken out on the other side, at Barzeh and Qaboun. Attack helicopters were seen there firing rockets for the first time since the uprising began.

State media gave little prominence to the fighting, but said security forces were pursuing remnants of a “terrorist gang” in Nahr Eisha.

Everybody and his brother is covering this story now even the NY Times but remember you heard about the fighting in Damascus here first:

Syria Hardens Response to Clashes in Damascus

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Damascus was tense on Tuesday as clashes between the Syrian army and rebels near the city center extended into a third day, with government forces throwing a security cordon around some embattled neighborhoods, firing from helicopters and reinforcing the number of tanks on the streets.
Despite other fighting in the northern suburb of Qaboun, plus some sweeping statements from some rebel fighters that the ultimate battle for Damascus had been joined, numerous opposition members suggested it was basically more intense skirmishing in a limited number of neighborhoods — a continuing of gun battles that started Sunday.

“The battle for Damascus has not started,” said Abu Raed, a coordinator in Qaboun for the Free Syrian Army, the lose coalition of rebel fighters, interviewed in Turkey and using only one name because he plans to return to Syria. “It is more ebb and flow; these skirmishes are just a test as our fighters infiltrate then withdraw.”

From ahramonline we have today's AFP report:

War comes to Damascus in revolt 'turning point'

Syria's military deployed armoured vehicles near central Damascus on Monday as troops battled rebels around the capital in what activists said could be a turning point in the 16-month uprising.

Russia, meanwhile, slammed as "blackmail" Western pressure to push for a UN Security Council resolution against Syria's regime, as a top defector warned that President Bashar al-Assad would not hesitate to use chemical weapons against his own people.

Syria's rebels late Monday announced the launch of a full-scale attack operation.

The Free Syrian Army's central-Homs Joint Command said its operation was launched "in response to massacres and barbaric crimes" committed by the Assad regime.

The FSA, the statement said, started to conduct "attacks on all security stations and branches in the cities and the countryside, to enter into fierce clashes (with their forces) and to call on them to surrender."

The FSA called for all international roads to be cut off, "from (northern) Aleppo to (southern) Daraa and from (eastern) Deir Ezzor to (coastal) Lattakia, to cut off and seize the supply lines."

As battles raged around Damascus for a second straight day, troops deployed armoured vehicles near the historic neighbourhood of Al-Midan.

"When there is fighting in the capital for several hours, even days, and troops are unable to control the situation, that proves the regime's weakness," Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP.

Online videos showed street battles in the capital, with fighters firing off rocket-propelled grenades from behind sandbags.

An activist on the ground, identifying himself as Abu Musab, said the army was trying to overrun Al-Midan and called the fighting a "turning point" in the revolt against Assad's autocratic regime.

Activists said the army and FSA rebels had also been locked in fierce clashes since Sunday in the southern Damascus neighbourhood of Tadamon, Kfar Sousa in the west and Jobar in the east.

The Observatory said at least seven people were killed, all but one of them civilians, in the Midan, Tadamun and Aishe districts, in the heaviest clashes in the capital since the March 2011 start of the uprising.

The authorities vowed on Monday they would not surrender the capital. "You will never get Damascus," read the headline in Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the regime.

Activists said residents were fleeing Tadamon, with many seeking shelter in the nearby Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, as the opposition Syrian National Council accused the regime of transforming Damascus into "battlefields."

From the CNN Wire Staff:

Defector: 'The battle for Damascus is coming'
6:58 PM EDT, Mon July 16, 2012
(CNN) -- Increasing violence in the Syrian capital is pointing toward a major fight ahead, a rebel spokesman told CNN Monday.

"The battle for Damascus is coming," said Abdulhameed Zakaria, a Syrian army colonel and doctor who defected and joined the opposition Free Syrian Army in Istanbul.

Video from the capital on Monday showed regime tanks in some streets and clashes with members of the opposition.

Video from activists in the central Damascus neighborhood of Medan showed people running and screaming amid loud sounds. It was unclear whether the blasts were gunshots or mortar fire.

Another video shows rebel fighters facing off against what appears to be a tank in the southern Damascus neighborhood of Tadamon, firing rifles, a heavy machine gun and a rocket-propelled grenade. They shoot at it repeatedly from behind a barricade down a rubble-strewn street, only to have a man tell them to stop wasting ammunition.

CNN cannot independently confirm the authenticity of the videos. Meanwhile, state-run TV showed a woman driving a car in Medan saying there was "nothing going on right now."

Asked about reports that there was shelling in Medan, she responded, "No, nothing is happening, thank God." But apparent gunfire could be heard in the background as she spoke.

With violence spreading throughout the country, the Red Cross announced that the conflict is a civil war throughout the country.

The declaration officially applies the Geneva Conventions to violence throughout the country. International humanitarian law now applies "wherever hostilities take place," the organization said Monday.

The Red Cross does not use the general term "civil war," and instead declares a "noninternational armed conflict." In April, the organization declared such a conflict in Homs, Hama and Idlib, but hostilities have spread enough that the conflict exists throughout the country, ICRC spokesman Sean Maguire said.

"Part of its legal mandate is to determine when international humanitarian law applies," Maguire told CNN. "We make a determination as to whether a conflict exists."

"In theory," he said, the Red Cross announcement could affect prosecutions by the International Criminal Court in the future. If a prosecuting authority is established for Syria, it could point to the announcement that the Geneva Conventions applied and to ways that they were violated. However, for the court to look at the situation in Syria, a referral from the U.N. Security Council would be required, Maguire noted.

At least 97 people were killed Monday, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC). There were 30 deaths in Hama, 21 in Homs, 13 in Aleppo, 11 in Damascus, eight in Daraa, seven in Deir Ezzor, four in the Damascus suburbs and three in Idlib, the LCC said.

Also be sure to check out today's excellent EAWorldView coverage of events in Syria:
Syria Analysis: It's Not Quite "The Battle for Damascus"...But It's An Important Fight

EA's in-depth assessment of the Free Syrian Army, posted last Wednesday, assessed that the regime is now weak enough that it is vulnerable to a sudden takeover of the capital, for example through a series of surprise insurgent attacks. So is this the Battle for Damascus?

Probably not, at least not yet. What we are not seeing is heavy casualties on either side. We are not seeing large swings in control territory. We are not seeing extremely heavy firefights. This does not look like an epic battle to the finish.

What we are seeing are widespread skirmishes that have shut down most of the capital.The Guardian, asking the same question as us, has spoken to two activists. One man, a resident of Barzeh, says:

These clashes in the capital mark a new stage in the Syrian revolution. It is close now.

The regime has tried hard in the last year and half to make Damascus [isolated] from what's going on outside - to make Damascus quiet. They succeeded in the past, but yesterday there was shelling here, and [today] there was shelling on al-Qaboon and shelling on the south. Suddenly Damascus is in the centre of the action.

Inside Barzeh there is no sign of government presence. I think they don't dare to fight here. They are stuck in Midan and Qaboon. They are too busy to come here. They used to storm my neighbourhood three times a week

Another man, reportedly the head of the Revolution Leadership Council in Damascus, shares our assessment that, while important, these fights will not likely result in the fall of Damascus. But, he adds, the fighting could spread.

Then he gives interesting details:

The Free Syrian Army didn't start this fight. It was an operation by the army to put pressure on demonstrators, and the Free Syrian Army.

There are threats from regime forces that they will bombard the southern part of the city - they have stationed tanks and artillery in the southern parts of the city.

Yet others in the opposition are ready to take this fight to Assad's palace, however, and at least one commander has stated that this is the beginning of the battle for Damascus.
One of the grey areas of this conflict is that the Free Syrian Army views itself as the protector for pro-democracy protests, protests which are by and large peaceful. However, those demonstrations are consistently fired upon by Assad forces, which has prompted the Free Syrian Army fighters to provide an escort. That in turn gives the regime an incentive to confront the protesting crowds, as there are now armed insurgents present.

Even protesters who do not want to see an insurgency appear to support the Free Syrian Army. Groups committed to nonviolence are organising rallies in the streets of Damascus, often a few hundred meters from gun battles between the FSA and regime forces. Those lines blur further when protesters, as they did yesterday, light fires or establish roadblocks to prevent the Assad military from arriving on the scene.

Conclusion? When the violence escalates, it will escalate exponentially, and civilians will be caught in the crossfire.

See also these EAWorldView reports:
Tuesday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Fighting Across the Country
Monday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Fighting in Damascus

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