Resurgent Syrian Rebels Surprise Damascus With New Assaults

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian insurgents seized several government positions on the outskirts of Damascus on Tuesday in the third day of their most ambitious offensive in the capital in years, sending a sharp reminder that the war in Syria is far from over.

Fierce fighting broke out on the northeastern edge of Damascus, as a mix of Islamist rebel groups and hard-line Qaeda-linked jihadists seized an industrial area about a mile from the historic Old City near the heart of the Syrian capital. Rebel offensives erupted in several other parts of the country.

Government forces have been scrambling to repel the attack since it began on Sunday, bringing troops and allied militias from other front lines to hold their territory in Damascus, as government warplanes pummel rebel-held suburbs with scores of strikes. Rebel shells hit the city, wounding 15, and the authorities shut down many of the main roads.

After the government seized the eastern half of Aleppo from rebels last year, it worked hard to create the impression that the war was essentially over. The recent activity, including a series of suicide bombings in Damascus and a rebel attack Thursday on the northern city of Hama, seemed to indicate that the war might be entering a new phase instead.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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