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Tides turn

A Syrian rebel in his home.

A Syrian rebel in his home.

BEIRUT — Syrian rebels poured reinforcements into a key Damascus suburb on Tuesday in an attempt to push back government troops who have renewed their campaign to secure the capital and build on battlefield gains elsewhere in the country.

Fighting centred on Qaboun, a rebel-held district where Syrian troops backed by tanks and artillery had made inroads yesterday as part of efforts to consolidate control over Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad’s power base.

After two years of rebel gains in a war that has cost more than 90,000 lives, the tide has turned somewhat for Assad’s forces, allowing them to seize the city of Qusair last month and press on with a campaign to link Damascus to Assad’s coastal strongholds.

In facing down the mainly Sunni rebels seeking to oust him, the Syrian leader has received important backing from Shi’ite Iran and from Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon as the war takes on an increasingly sectarian aspect.

At the same time, the rebels are plagued by infighting between Islamist fighters and members of the more liberal Free Syrian Army, which is backed by the West and some Arab nations.

Assad’s forces are pressing their campaign at a time when the Free Syrian Army has yet to receive weapons promised by Washington but delayed by objections by US lawmakers.

A US official said on Monday that the Obama administration had made progress in overcoming these concerns but some details remained unresolved.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers fear the weapons could end up in the hands of Islamist militants, and would not be enough to tip the balance against the better-equipped Syrian government anyway.

Britain, meanwhile, said it would give Syrian rebels equipment to protect themselves against chemical and biological weapons as “a matter of special urgency”.

Britain has said forces loyal to Assad have made limited use of chemical weapons, something the Syrian government denies.

In an attempt at unity, the Syrian opposition now intends to create a 10-member executive council that can to draw together disparate factions into a more structured army with better financing and weapons, Michel Kilo, a senior opposition figure, told Reuters in Paris.

In Damascus, the latest fighting comes almost a year after one of the rebels’ most spectacular attacks in the capital — a bomb attack last July 18 which killed several of Assad’s most senior security officials.

Abu Nidal, a rebel spokesman in Damascus, said today that his fighters were trying to prevent the army advancing further into Qaboun, which it entered yesterday. (Reuters)

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