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Resurgent Syrian Rebels Surprise Damascus With New Assaults

While the government still seems to be consolidating control over major population centers along Syria’s western spine, it appears at a minimum likely to face a lingering rural insurgency and bombing campaigns in the cities by hard-line jihadist groups.

At the least, the rebel assaults carried a political message: that the insurgents could still disrupt life in the capital and challenge the forces of President Bashar al-Assad at several points around the country, while simultaneously attacking Islamic State fighters.

By mounting a series of simultaneous assaults around the country, the rebels seemed intent on exploiting one of the government forces’ main weaknesses. While they have Russian air support and help on the ground from Iranian-trained militias, they are spread thin after six years of war and the drain of so many men fleeing the country rather than serving in the army.

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A rebel fighter opened fire on Sunday in Jobar, a district east of Damascus.

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Amer Almohibany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It was not immediately clear if the rebels could maintain the offensive. Their forces around Damascus have been badly depleted in recent years and their territory rolled back as the government besieged districts and forced their surrender.

And the new assaults raised political concerns, in that they continue the alliance between a spectrum of rebel groups and hard-line Islamists considered terrorists by Russia and the United States.

The rebels are also walking a fine line with Syrian and international public opinion. To build leverage for imminent peace talks, they need to show they can still cause trouble for the government on the ground, undermining its claim that it can control territory and maintain security.

Yet, they stand to pay a huge political price if they ally themselves with groups that have been intensifying Baghdad-style insurgent attacks like the suicide bombing that killed more than 30 people last week in a historic courthouse in Damascus.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for that attack. But fighters linked to Al Qaeda did say they had carried out two suicide bombings this month that killed dozens of Iraqi pilgrims near the Old City.

Other rebel groups condemned both of those attacks.

There were reports late Tuesday of several new insurgent assaults on government territory taking place at once: one in Hama Province and another on the western outskirts of Aleppo. In recent weeks, rebels have also launched attacks in Daraa Province to the south. Until recently, fighters there had lain low at the behest of foreign sponsors including the United States, but it now appears they have either decided to defy their patrons or persuaded them to heat up the front again.

Rebel and jihadi groups were also advancing against the Islamic State in the Qalamoun region, north of Damascus.

The government has been hitting rebel-held areas to the east of Damascus with air raids and artillery for more than a month, despite a nominal cease-fire that was supposed to be maintained during new rounds of peace talks in Geneva and in Astana, Kazakhstan.

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In East Ghouta on Tuesday, Syrian civil defense volunteers prepared to bury a member of their ranks who was killed in an airstrike on a rebel-held village.

Credit
Amer Almohibany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

None of the rebel groups in the offensive on northeast Damascus are among the ones being backed in a covert C.I.A. program. But Mohammad al-Alloush, the leader of the Army of Islam, one of the groups involved in the assault, is nominally the head opposition negotiator in the Geneva peace talks.

With their monthlong offensive, government forces appeared to be trying to further isolate the besieged suburbs of East Ghouta, hoping to eventually force the rebels there to surrender or face a grinding battle with widespread humanitarian suffering, as happened in Aleppo.

That makes the districts of Jobar and Qaboun, and neighboring Barzeh, critical territory for both sides. They are the gateway to the business and tourism center of Damascus, where relatively normal life has been a symbol of the government’s continuing control over the capital during six years of conflict. For the rebels, the area contains the smuggling tunnels that help supply East Ghouta, supplementing whatever food can be grown there.

A main highway out of Damascus passes nearby, and during lulls in the fighting when it is passable drivers survey a landscape of jagged shells of destroyed buildings.

Rebels initially gained ground in a surprise attack on Sunday. Government command posts were hit by two suicide bombs detonated by fighters from Tahrir al-Sham, the new name adopted by the Nusra Front after it claimed to shed its affiliation with Al Qaeda. Then rebel groups including Faylaq al-Sham, the Army of Islam and Ahrar al-Sham advanced.

The attacks took Damascus residents by surprise. Schools were closed for at least a day. Smoke could be seen rising over familiar landmarks. A reporter for Syrian state television, in the midst of assuring the audience that life was going on as normal in central Abasiyeen Square, flinched on air at the sound of a nearby projectile. When she was seen next, she was newly clad in a flak jacket and helmet.

The government responded in force to the initial assault. Elite units, regular troops, irregulars in jeans carrying Kalashnikovs, members of foreign militias and armored vehicles could be seen near the front line on Sunday and Monday.

They managed to take back the territory, but on Tuesday the insurgents hit back and regained much of the contested ground. Footage showed fighters with Ahrar al-Sham entering a textile factory they had just seized.

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