Syrian Insurgents Strike a Nerve with Attack on Elite Damascus Guards

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Fighters for the insurgent Free Syrian Army launched what they described as an exploratory attack on a military base housing Syria's elite Republican Guard in Damascus late Monday, and the ferocious reaction on Tuesday convinced them their foray had been something of a success.

The Syrian armed forces responded with heavy shelling of the suburb of Qudssaya, an area with strong opposition presence about two and a half miles northwest of the Presidential Palace, and on Barzeh in northern Damascus, about three miles northeast. Activists reported that as many as 20 residents were killed.

In an apparently unrelated development, a Syrian Air Force Lieutenant General was kidnapped by armed men from his home in Damascus, according to Syrian State Television, who identified him as Lt. Gen. Farage Shihada al Maqat. He was taken from his home in the Al Adawi neighborhood of Damascus, an exclusive area where dignitaries and Russian advisers live. If the report is true, General Maqat would be the highest ranking officer to be kidnapped or killed in the conflict so far. More than 13 generals are among a wave of high-ranking officers who have defected to the opposition recently. The assault on the Republican Guard base, which is adjacent to the palace, began on Monday night and was only intended as a probing attack, according to a lieutenant of the Free Syrian Army whose unit launched the attack, and who was interviewed by Skype telephone afterward.

"It was not a big confrontation, it was just to test the Guards' capacity, for future attacks," said the lieutenant, who for security reasons asked to be identified only by his rank. "Our fighters were really surprised by the huge forces that immediately came and encircled the area."

As he put it, the incident proved that "one bullet in Damascus has more impact than a tank barrage in Idlib or Homs, because the regime doesn't hear the bombings but for sure they hear the bullet in Damascus."

Only 20 lightly armed fighters were involved in the attack, he said. "It was just a test for when the battle does move to Damascus."

The elite Republican Guard Division has an estimated 8,000 or more soldiers and is devoted to protection of President Bashar al-Assad and his subordinates. The Republican Guard has taken the lead in suppressing dissent in the capital area.

Other opposition sources reported an escalation of the fighting in Damascus, mainly from government shelling focused on the neighborhoods or suburbs of Qudssaya, Dummar and Al Hameh, all to the northeast of the Republican Guard base, which in turn adjoins the Presidential Palace, which is on a commanding hill 500 feet above the main city.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group in Britain with a contact network in Syria, reported that 10 people were killed in Qudssaya. The Local Cordination Committees, an anti-Assad group in Syria that has been documenting casualties in the conflict, reported 20 killed in the Damascus suburbs of Qudssaya, Al Hameh and Dummar, as well as two killed in the capital.

The shelling early Tuesday was intense enough to be heard throughout the capital, according to Noor Bitar, who identified himself as the media coordinator for the Damascus branch of the Revolutionary Council Leadership, another anti-Assad group.

"The explosions are so strong that people think they are happening in their own neighborhoods," said Mr. Bitar, who had just left Syria.

"Each person in Damascus feels insecure today, a friend who took me to the airport told me he won't sleep anymore at home because there is a checkpoint next to his house now. Though he is not an activist, every young man now is afraid of being arrested," Mr. Bitar said.

The fighting in Damascus was confirmed in part by Syria's official SANA news agency, which reported that "authorities clashed on Tuesday with armed terrorist groups in Al Hameh town in the Damascus countryside." The SANA report said the armed groups had blocked the old Beirut highway, and officials had killed "tens of terrorists." Syria's official media refer to all anti-Assad activists as terrorists.

Journalists in Syria who attempted to reach those areas on Tuesday found the way blocked by large numbers of soldiers with tanks and heavy equipment.

A woman who identified herself as Serene and who lives in the Mezze market area of Damascus, about three miles from the area of the heaviest shelling, said residents were awakened at 4 a.m. by the bombardment. "Everyone was up sending text messages wondering what was happening," she said, speaking by Skype. "We're used to car bombs but this was shelling explosions. The circle is getting tighter."

A 40-year-old man named Abu Rami, 40, who lives in Qudssaya with his wife and two children, said people had been unable to go to work over the past two days because of heavy shooting and bombardment. "The Free Syrian Army wants to move the battle to Damascus," he said approvingly, repeating rumors about rebel destruction of army tanks. "We feel we live under a real war now, not just skirmishes here and there."

A Syrian activist named Omar, a trader who lives near the Al Hameh area and who was interviewed by Skype, said 10 people were killed in the shelling of Qudssaya and Al Hameh, but the death toll was probably higher. "There are also bodies in the streets but they are not capable of getting them out because of snipers."

Omar said there had been regular gunfire in those areas of the city for the past two months. "The military escalation is unprecedented in Damascus province, but I don't expect any heavy clashes yet, the Free Syrian Army has no capacity."

What the armed opposition lacks in capacity, however, it makes up for in bluster. Referring to the fast fall of Tripoli to Libyan rebels just last August, after fighters from outlying areas pressed on Muammar el-Qaddafi's stronghold, the Free Syrian Army lieutenant expressed satisfaction with Monday's foray.

"We are just practicing," he said. "One day Damascus will be our Tripoli."

Dalal Mawad contributed reporting from Beirut, and a New York Times employee from Damascus..

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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