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Syria rebels appear to be shifting strategy in Damascus

Bombings and assassinations seem to be less about holding territory than making guerrilla-style strikes, some of which have caused civilian casualties.

November 07, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • A rebel fighter fires at Syrian government forces in Aleppo on Tuesday. Rebels have also been carrying out attacks in the capital, Damascus.
A rebel fighter fires at Syrian government forces in Aleppo on Tuesday.… (Achilleas Zavallis / AFP/Getty…)

BEIRUT — Syria's armed opposition, driven back from Damascus in a fierce government counteroffensive last summer, appears to be responding with a revamped strategy that runs through some of the capital's most explosive sectarian and ethnic fault lines.

A pair of bombings this week struck districts that are strongholds of President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam whose adherents are generally hostile to the Sunni-led uprising. Trusted Alawite commanders run much of Assad's security apparatus.

Meanwhile, rebels have reportedly launched attacks this week on a major pro-Assad Palestinian faction. Syria's 500,000-strong Palestinian community appears to be split between Assad stalwarts and those who sympathize with fellow Sunnis fighting to oust the president.

The recent violence in Damascus includes a string of targeted killings and assassinations of prominent figures associated with the government.

The opposition tactics in the capital have underscored the rebels' continued ability to strike at the heart of Assad's government despite stringent security, including a plethora of checkpoints. This summer, a robust Syrian military campaign routed rebels from districts such as Midan and Barzeh, leaving many dead and driving others back to the edges of the capital.

The new rebel strategy appears to be less about holding territory than conducting something closer to guerrilla-style strikes, including powerful car bombings that have caused civilian casualties.

The rebel tactics could complicate efforts to build international support at a time when Western governments are worried about an influx of militants. Car bombs and sectarian-tinged attacks appear to many outsiders as the domain of extremists, not democracy-seeking revolutionaries.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week urged the opposition leadership to be "on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution."

On Wednesday, a leading pro-Assad Palestinian faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, issued a statement saying "armed gangs" had waged a "vicious attack" on refugee settlements in the Yarmouk area on the capital's outskirts. The group said it repulsed the assailants, resulting in scores of mortar shells being fired in retribution. There were no confirmed reports of casualties.

The leadership of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas left Damascus months ago in what was widely regarded as its rejection of Assad's crackdown on the Sunni-led rebellion.

Also on Wednesday, rebel mortar shells fell in the capital's Mazzeh Jabal 86 district, killing three people and leaving six hospitalized, including three in critical condition, the official news service reported.

State media blamed "terrorists," its standard term for armed rebels. Mazzeh Jabal 86 is home to many Alawite officers and their families.

The mortar attack came two days after a car bomb exploded in a crowded square in the same district, killing 11 people and injuring dozens, state media said. Photos distributed by the government showed bloodied women and children.

On Tuesday, three bombs struck another Alawite stronghold in the Qudsaya suburb. At least six were killed and more than two dozen injured, the government said.

A rebel official denied a sectarian motive behind Wednesday's mortar attacks. The mortar rounds were supposed to hit government and security targets, including the presidential palace, he said.

"We don't do operations that hit or hurt the civilians, no matter their sect," said Abu Hadi, a spokesman for the Ahrar Houran brigade, which said it was responsible for Wednesday's mortar strikes. "We are not sectarian and we don't think in terms of sectarianism."

Along with bombings, targeted killings of government figures and supporters also appear to be on the upswing in the capital.

On Wednesday, the state news agency reported that "an armed terrorist group" assassinated a judge, Abad Nadweh, using an explosive attached to his car.

The judge's killing came a day after the brother of the speaker of the pro-Assad parliament was shot to death in his car in Damascus as he headed to work, according to official accounts.

Last weekend, rebels in Damascus abducted and executed a well-known Palestinian Syrian television actor, Mohamed Rafeh. Rebels accused Rafeh of being a government informant and enforcer. Friends and family say the actor was killed in retribution for his outspoken support of Assad.

Special correspondent Nabih Bulos, a Times staff writer in Beirut and a special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.

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