BEIRUT – Syrian troops battled army defectors in a string of towns in the mountains overlooking Damascus on Wednesday in a new assault to crush rebellious areas around the capital, activists said.
The battles in a mountain valley came after regime forces succeeded in largely retaking control of suburbs on the eastern side of the city in an offensive the past week that fueled some of the bloodiest days of the nearly 11-month-old uprising. More than 30 people were killed around the country Wednesday, activists said.
Activists say President Bashar Assad's forces have intensified their crackdown in hopes of silencing protesters and the army dissidents who have joined them as the United Nations Security Council debates a draft resolution demanding that Assad step down.
On Tuesday, Western powers and Arab countries at the U.N. sought to overcome Russia's opposition to the measure. Addressing the Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to allay Moscow's concerns that the resolution could open the door to eventual military intervention in Syria, as took place in Libya last year.
"I know that some members here may be concerned that the Security Council is headed toward another Libya," she said. "That is a false analogy."
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"It is time for the international community to put aside our own differences and send a clear message of support to the people of Syria," Clinton said.
Russia has stood by Assad as he tries to crush an uprising that began last March. In October, Moscow vetoed the first Security Council attempt to condemn Syria's crackdown and has shown little sign of budging in its rejection of the new measure.
The latest resolution would demand Assad carry out an Arab League peace plan by which he would hand his powers to the vice president and allow formation of a unity government to pave the way for elections.
On Wednesday, shelling and machine gun fire rattled in towns along the Wadi Barada, a valley in the mountains a few miles northwest of Damascus near the Lebanese border, according to online video posted by activists.
The valley leads to the mountain resort town of Zabadani, an opposition stronghold that has been under the control of rebel soldiers and protesters for several weeks.
At least 21 civilians were killed as government forces battered Deir Qanoun, Ein al-Fija and other towns in the valley, and six army defectors were killed in fighting, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, put the death toll at 29 civilians in the valley. It said 14 fighters from the Free Syrian Army, made up of army defectors, were killed in fighting around the country. It was impossible to reconcile the two group's figures.
The fact that rebels made it to the doorstep of Damascus, the seat of Assad's power, was a dangerous development for the regime. Rebel soldiers had grown bolder, setting up checkpoints and protecting protesters in suburbs surrounding Damascus.
A military offensive largely succeeded in crushing the remaining resistance on the eastern side of the capital by Tuesday.
But those areas were hardly quiet Wednesday: Troops raided homes in several of those suburbs, searching for activists, killing at least two young men. A 3-year-old girl died in the suburb of Arbeen from gunfire as troops stormed neighborhoods, the Observatory said.
In the central city of Homs, one of the biggest flashpoints of the uprising and a scene of daily fighting, government troops shelled buildings and fought defectors in several neighborhoods. At least eight residents were killed, the Observatory said.
Regime troops were also fighting defectors Wednesday in the northeastern region of Idlib and the southern area of Daraa, activists said. A large force of armored vehicles and troops stormed into the town of Khirbet Ghazali, outside Daraa, opening fire and storming homes, the Observatory and LCC reported.
The U.N. estimated several weeks ago that more than 5,400 people have been killed in the Syrian government crackdown, but has not been able to update the figure. The death toll from Monday's offensive in the suburbs was around 100 people, making it among the bloodiest days since the uprising began, according to the two activist groups.
The U.N. Security Council resolution would give Assad 15 days to start implementing the Arab peace plan and halt the crackdown, otherwise the Council would consider "further measures."
That would likely mean economic and other sanctions. But Moscow says it could lay the groundwork for later military intervention. Russia, a longtime ally of Assad, has insisted the crisis can be resolved by negotiations and that U.N. action thwarts any dialogue.
Arab officials joined Western countries in trying to persuade Russia to back the measure.
Deputy Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed bin Helli said Wednesday the League sought the U.N. resolution to back its peace plan and boost an Arab solution for the crisis, not to bring in international military action.
The League "is still committed ... to solving this crisis in the Arab framework, away from any outside intervention," he said during a visit to Baghdad.
Moscow's stance is motivated in part by its strategic and defense ties, including weapons sales, with Syria. Russia also rejects what it sees as a a world order dominated by the U.S.