By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times –
BEIRUT — Syrian rebels penetrated checkpoints and concrete barriers Wednesday to attack the country’s military headquarters in an assault that left the facility scorched and abandoned, and punctured President Bashar Assad’s claim to have his capital under tight control.
The attack in the heart of the city was the rebels’ second major effort in Damascus as many days, and appeared aimed at regaining momentum after the conflict had settled in recent weeks into a stalemate across many parts of the country.
Witnesses said gunbattles resounded in the area near Umayyed Square for five hours following two bomb explosions early Wednesday, as security forces tried to flush out rebel fighters. Residents were ordered by loudspeaker to stay inside and shut their doors.
Unlike a bombing in mid-July that officials said killed four of Assad’s top security aides, the government said Wednesday’s attack did not cause major casualties. But it did shatter the impression of calm and control that the government has tried hard to create since heavy fighting this summer in which Assad’s forces claimed to have pushed rebels out of districts across the city.
The attack came as the United Nations General Assembly has been debating the crisis in Syria. A deeply divided U.N. has failed to agree on sanctions to punish Assad and efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting have gone nowhere.
Wednesday’s attack occurred only about a mile from Assad’s residence, the most visible rebel strike to date in the center of the capital. Intense fighting in July and August focused on outlying districts and working-class suburbs where the rebels had established a presence.
The official press agency said four guards were killed and 14 other people were injured in the strike against the armed forces command headquarters. State media said that no military commanders had been killed or injured, and that “the terrorists as usual failed to achieve their goals.”
The rebel Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the two bombs and said “dozens” had been killed. A rebel group calling itself the Mustafa Brigade said the blasts were caused by a pair of car bombs, at least one of which was a suicide attack. Rebels also claimed to have planted explosives inside the military headquarters.
Last weekend, the rebel command said it had moved inside “liberated” areas of Syria and was preparing for an offensive on the heavily defended capital. On Tuesday, rebels said they detonated nine bombs in a school where security forces were meeting, and the fuel tanks underneath it.
Some reports indicated that rebels were thwarted in a bid to storm the offices of the state-owned television station, just across Umayyed Square.
The first blast, at about 7 a.m., sent a massive column of smoke into the sky above the capital and shattered windows. Residents said it was felt a mile away. The second, less powerful explosion followed a few minutes later.
State television showed footage of what it called the first blast — a minivan pulling up outside the military compound and abruptly exploding.
Car bombs and improvised roadside explosives, like those used so effectively against U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq, have become important weapons for Syria’s rebels, who are unable to match the firepower of the government arsenal. Syrian authorities claim Islamic militants from Iraq and elsewhere are fighting with the rebels and have brought their bomb-making skills with them.
In the rebel ground assault, state TV put the number of assailants at seven, but opposition activists said as many as 80 insurgents were involved.
After the fighting ended, the military headquarters was completely scorched and abandoned, windows broken and all of its window frames damaged. Large numbers of soldiers patrolled the area.
Broken windows and destroyed offices were also visible at the nearby Assad Library, the main public library and a Damascus landmark.