Fighting between rebels and Syrian forces intensified and spread across the capital of Damascus on Tuesday as diplomats scrambled to shore up a tough international response to the “civil war” ahead of a U.N. deadline for withdrawing observers.
Using helicopter gunships, Syrian forces beefed up their bid to crush the 16-month-old rebellion against President Bashar Assad, but were met with an influx of rebels on the third day of sustained clashes, including fighting near the parliament building.
The Free Syrian Army, a rebel force made up of soldiers who have deserted Mr. Assad, is bolstering its presence in the capital, according to two sources in Syria, who sought anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“It’s just a matter of weeks, not months” before the regime falls, said Mousab Azzawi, a doctor and London-based spokesman for the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
He said the rebel offensive has boxed the regime into a circle 7 miles in diameter in Damascus.
Terrified families fled the city or said they were prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. Residents said they were packing “getaway bags” in case they had to run for their lives.
“My bag has my family’s passports, our university degrees, some cash and medicine,” a 57-year-old father of two told the Associated Press. He also asked for anonymity. “It is very hard to imagine leaving your home and everything you worked to get, but it’s a matter of life and death.”
Syrian activists say the international community must make it a priority to protect civilians in what the Red Cross has deemed a civil war. The United Nations estimates that up to 1.5 million people in Syria are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
At the United Nations, diplomatic battle lines have been drawn with Britain and Russia circulating competing drafts of resolutions to put pressure on Mr. Assad’s regime and end the conflict. A vote is expected Wednesday.
The Western-backed British draft calls for nonmilitary sanctions against the regime if Mr. Assad refuses to withdraw his troops and heavy weapons from population centers within 10 days. The proposed resolution is under the U.N. Charter’s Chapter VII, which allows the use of force to end the conflict. However, the United States and its Western allies are opposed to military intervention.
Russia objects to the use of military force, and its draft calls for the immediate implementation of U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan, which seeks a cease-fire followed by a political solution to the conflict. Mr. Annan’s plan so far has been a failure.
Britain is standing firm on the text of its resolution.
The text “hasn’t changed much, and not at all on the core issues of Chapter VII and the threat of sanctions,” a Western official said on background, citing the sensitive nature of the discussions.
Mr. Annan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday in a bid to secure a compromise, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated that Moscow is willing to seek a consensus.
“I don’t see a reason that we couldn’t agree in the Security Council. We are prepared for that,” Mr. Lavrov told the Interfax news agency. Russia has twice vetoed U.N. resolutions to step up pressure on the Assad regime.