BEIRUT – Syrian forces pushed dissident troops back from the edge of Damascus in heavy fighting Monday, escalating efforts to take back control of the capital’s eastern doorstep ahead of key U.N. talks over a draft resolution demanding that President Bashar Assad step aside.
Gunfire and the boom of shelling rang out in several suburbs on Damascus’ outskirts that had come under the domination of anti-regime fighters. Gunmen — apparently army defectors — were shown firing back in amateur videos posted online by activists. In one video, a government tank on the snow-dusted mountain plateau towering over the capital fired at one of the suburbs below.
While it was unclear to what extent any fighting in the suburbs continued Tuesday morning, CBS News’ George Baghdadi reports that Syria’s government was declaring victory.
A written statement by the Interior Ministry said state forces had, “chased the elements of armed terrorist groups that committed the worst crimes of murder and kidnapping against the citizens and had planted mines on public roads and terrorized people, including children and women” from a long list of suburbs which have been battle grounds in recent days.
The statement claimed the opposition fighters were found armed with “the latest types of weapons, including Israeli and the U.S. ones.”
The government vowed to “continue to pursue the remnants of these groups.”
As the bloodshed increased, with activists reporting more than 40 civilians killed Monday, Western and Arab countries stepped up pressure on Assad’s ally Russia to overcome its opposition to the resolution.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the British and French foreign ministers were heading to New York to push for backing of the measure during talks Tuesday at the United Nations.
“The status quo is unsustainable,” Clinton said, saying the Assad regime was preventing a peaceful transition and warning that the resulting instability could “spill over throughout the region.”
The draft resolution demands that Assad halt the crackdown and implement an Arab peace plan that calls for him to hand over power to his vice president and allow creation of a unity government to pave the way for elections.
If Assad fails to comply within 15 days, the council would consider “further measures,” a reference to a possible move to impose economic or other sanctions.
U.S. Intelligence is predicting increased fighting and possible civil war in Syria as the battle against the Assad regime rages on the outskirts of Damascus, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin.
While opposition figures claim as many as 10,000 soldiers have defected to the opposition, it’s clear the regime still holds the upper hand – and the fighting is unlikely to cease soon. (Click the player at left to see David Martin’s full report)
British Prime Minister David Cameron called the situation in Syria “appalling” and appealed Monday to Russia to back the U.N. Security Council resolution.
“It is time for all the members of U.N. Security Council to live up to their responsibilities instead of shielding those who have blood on their hands,” Cameron said.
Moscow, which in October vetoed the first council attempt to condemn Syria’s crackdown, has shown little sign of budging in its opposition. It warns that the new measure could open the door to eventual military intervention, the way an Arab-backed U.N. resolution led to NATO air strikes in Libya.
A French official said the draft U.N. resolution has a “comfortable majority” of support from 10 of the Security Council’s 15 members, meaning Russia or China would have to use its veto power to stop it. The official said Russia had agreed to negotiate on the draft, but it was not yet clear if it would be willing to back it if changes were made.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with department rules.
The Kremlin said Monday it was trying to put together negotiations in Moscow between Damascus and the opposition. It said Assad’s government has agreed to participate; the opposition has in the past rejected any negotiations unless violence stops.