Syrian rebels launch second Damascus attack in three days


UPDATE 5-Syrian rebels launch second Damascus attack in three days

* Biggest rebel assault in inner part of capital in four
    * Rebels hope assault will strengthen hand in peace talks
    * Military source says incursion "being dealt with"

 (Adds rebel assault near Hama)
    By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Tom PerryAMMAN/BEIRUT, March 21 (Reuters) - Syrian rebels stormed a
government-held area in northeastern Damascus on Tuesday for the
second time in three days, sources on both sides of the fighting
said, in the opposition's first such large scale foray in over
four years in the capital.
    For rebels, the assault has shown they are still able to
wage offensive action, though their situation remains very
difficult near Damascus and across the country as a whole.
    Separately, an alliance of rebel groups said on Tuesday it
had launched a new offensive near the city of Hama in the
central part of western Syria. [nL5N1GY5RQ]
    President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian army, along with
allied Russian, Iranian and Shi'ite militia forces, have gained
the upper hand in the war for western Syria over the past 18
months, culminating in the full recapture of Aleppo in December.
    Witnesses in Damascus said several rockets were fired into
central, government-held parts of the city by rebels and state
media reported that the army had conducted numerous air and
artillery strikes against insurgents.
    The spokesman for one of the main insurgent groups involved
in the attack told Reuters new offensive began at 5.00 a.m.,
targeting an area rebel fighters had seized from government
control on Sunday before being forced to retreat.
    A Syrian military source told Reuters rebel fighters had
entered the area, setting off a car bomb at the start of the
attack. The source said a group of rebels that had entered the
area had been encircled and were "being dealt with".
    The rebel groups have launched the assault from their
Eastern Ghouta stronghold to the east of the capital. Government
forces have escalated military operations against Eastern Ghouta
in recent weeks, seeking to tighten a siege on the area. The
rebel assault aims partly to relieve that pressure.
    The fighting has focused around the Abassiyin area of the
northeastern Jobar district, some 2 km east of the Old City
walls, at a major road junction leading into the capital.
    A witness in the Tijara residential area near the fighting
said dozens of tanks were deployed - an unusual scene for
residents of inner Damascus, whose quarters been spared the
widespread fighting on the fringes of the sprawling city.
    North of Hama, jihadist rebel groups said they had launched
a new offensive which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a
Britain-based war monitor, said had made a considerable advance
and seized points inside the towns of Soran and Maardas.
    A military media unit run by Hezbollah said that fighting
continued in the towns.
    Wael Alwan, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel
group Failaq al Rahman, said: "We launched the new offensive and
we restored all the points we withdrew from on Monday."
    He said the attack strengthened the hand of the mainstream
opposition ahead of new peace talks in Geneva on Thursday. "Our
gains today will give strength to our presence in Geneva after
tomorrow," he added. [nL5N1GY37M]

    Another rebel official heading to Geneva said the attack
showed the limitations of Russia's extensive military support.
    "This is a military and political message to Russia that the
regime is weak and has no full control and is unable to
decisively tilt the balance in its favour militarily," Issam al
Rayess, a spokesman for the FSA's Southern Front alliance of
Western and Arab backed rebel groups.
    The Syrian military source said: "They entered a narrow
pocket - the same area of the (previous) breach - and now this
group is being dealt with."
    State media said rebels who infiltrated the city and Jobar
had fled with scores arrested or killed but gave no details.
    State television played what it said was footage taken on
Tuesday morning on Faris al-Khouri street, which runs towards
the Abbasiyin garages, and showed thick dark smoke rising in the
    The government says the attack is being carried out by
fighters of the Nusra Front, a jihadist group that was al
Qaeda's official affiliate in the Syrian war until it declared
they had broken off ties last year. The Nusra Front is now part
of an Islamist alliance called Tahrir al-Sham.
    The attack has relieved pressure on rebels who have lost
ground in the nearby areas of Qaboun and Barza, where the army
says rebels have constructed an elaborate network of tunnels
that provide essential goods that have for years helped Eastern
Ghouta withstand a tough siege.
    A rebel commander said the Syrian army was intensifying its
shelling on areas where they had advanced in Jobar and towns
across Eastern Ghouta. "There is no place that has not been
hit," said Abu Abdo a field commander from Failaq al Rahman
    The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which
monitors the conflict, said at least 143 air raids were
conducted by the Syrian army on rebel held eastern parts of
Damascus, mostly targeting Jobar, since the rebels launched
their offensive.

 (Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Tom Perry and Angus
McDowell in Beirut; Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by
Tom Perry and Alison Williams)
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