Beirut, Lebanon – Rebel fighters in, building on the momentum gained by their brazen assassination of three top security officials a day earlier, seized all four border crossings with Iraq and one into Turkey on Thursday, while also claiming for the first time to have captured a pocket of Damascus after intense street fighting.
The government fought back hard, with no indication that its far superior military machine had lost its edge against an opposition still working predominately with small-caliber weapons. Helicopters blasted the northern Damascus suburb of Qaboun with rockets, while the armed forces warned residents of a wide area of the southern part of the capital to evacuate ahead of an assault. Thousands of people fled to neighboring Lebanon.
“They threatened them and gave them 24 hours to leave their homes or they will be shelled,” said Ali Salem, an activist reached via Skype. Even residents in the western Damascus neighborhoods of Mezze and Kafr Souseh, who were not warned, fled in droves as shells thudded into their neighborhood from military positions on the Qassioun mountain above Damascus.
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But the government tried to project an aura of calm, even as it unleashed its forces in a manner similar to the devastating assaults on restive cities like Homs, where neighborhoods were effectively flattened and all the residents driven out.
President Bashar al-Assad appeared for the first time since the bombing attack Wednesday that killed three senior security officials. The Syrian leader showed up on state television to swear in the new defense minister to replace the one assassinated in a bomb attack.
The ceremony for Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij — the broadcast showed the two men interacting without any sound — seemed to take place in Damascus in one of the presidential palace’s reception rooms, its wall décor a series of distinctive antique doors inlaid with mother-of-pearl that used to grace homes in old Damascus.
Wire service reports said that Mr. Assad had fled to Latakia, the coastal city where he has a home, just one of the many rumors swirling around the capital in the wake of the stunning assassinations. One opposition activist said that only the women and children of the Assad family had flown to the coast — not unusual for a hot July weekend.
More intense fighting loomed, as the United Nations Security Council deadlocked as expected over a resolution seeking to punish Syria with economic sanctions for not putting a cease-fire into effect. Russia and China vetoed a resolution focused on the Syria crisis for a third time in an acrimonious meeting.
A last-ditch compromise was expected to give a 30-day extension for the 300 observers who suspended their work on June 16 because of the heavy violence. The departing officer in charge of the United Nations observers, Gen. Robert Mood, said at a news conference in Damascus that the monitors were “irrelevant” without the will for peace on both sides.
Little such will was in evidence. If there was an image for the day, it came from the border crossing, where rebels raised their flag. One video posted online showed rebel fighters defacing pictures of Mr. Assad and his father and predecessor as president, Hafez al-Assad, as they overran one border crossing after another. At the Bab al-Hawa entrance from Turkey, a fighter wielding a large stick smashed a huge hole in the president’s portrait over the border crossing.
In Baghdad, Iraqi government officials confirmed the seizures of the four crossings and said the frontier was shut and additional Iraqi troops sent there as a precaution.
One top Iraqi government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, said the border crossings, in Anbar and Nineveh Provinces, were closed and that Iraqi border forces had witnessed the executions of several Syrian Army soldiers at the hands of the Free Syrian Army rebels.
Iraq’s acting minister of the interior, Adnan al-Assadi, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying that Iraqi forces had witnessed the executions of 22 Syrian soldiers. Mr. Assadi could not immediately be reached to confirm that account.
Many Iraqis who were trying to flee the violence in Syria were now unable to return to Iraq, a top government official said.
In a statement on state television on Thursday evening, the Iraqi government said it would send airplanes to Damascus to bring Iraqis, many of whom fled the war in Iraq and remain in Syria, back home. Earlier Thursday, officials and news reports said, more than 1,000 Iraqis crossed into Iraq.
There was a similar flight toward Lebanon, except it was mostly Syrians. The Lebanese minister of social affairs announced that 4,500 cars had crossed into the country at the border crossing on the highway from Damascus, and local officials estimated that more than 20,000 people entered.
Since the uprising started in March 2011, Damascus has existed in a kind of bubble largely cut off from the violence that has run through much of the country. But that bubble has been burst after five days of intense street fighting, accented by the assassination of the three officials. They included Asef Shawkat, who was the president’s brother-in-law and one of the most feared man in Damascus for his long tenure as the head of various security agencies.
The streets of Damascus remained fairly deserted. Residents said they could hear the sound of helicopters, gunfire and shelling almost continuously. One man who tried to walk to a nearby house in the upscale neighborhood of Malki, near the president’s residence, was ordered home by the men running one of the many checkpoints that had sprung up.
The Syrian military said Thursday that the bombing had left it more determined to “clear the homeland of the armed terrorist groups” — the term it uses for the insurgents seeking Mr. Assad’s ouster. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights based in Britain said a group of rebel fighters claimed to have routed government soldiers in a section of Midan, taking over a piece of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. The claim, like most of the reports of fighting and of the toll, could not be independently confirmed.
The clashes left in their wake one of the highest one-day death tolls since the uprising began, with 155 civilians and 93 government soldiers killed throughout Syria, including nearly 60 civilians in and around Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The intensified fighting prompted foreign governments to pay even closer attention to Syria’s chemical weapons.
In Washington, a senior American official who is tracking Syria closely said Thursday that American intelligence reports had concluded that Syrian forces were moving some parts of their chemical weapons arsenal to safeguard it from falling into rebel hands, not to use it. “They’re moving it to defend it in some of the most contested areas,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified intelligence reports.
The official said that the upsurge in fighting did not presage an imminent fall of the government, predicting that Mr. Assad could likely hold out for at least six months. “This is an episodic erosion in his power, but he’ll recover,” he said.