(Repeats Sunday item)
* Assad trying for months to dislodge rebels from the
* Rebels dug in and well organised in Ghouta and Mouadamiya
* Developments in recent weeks increased rebel threat to
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, Aug 26 A diplomat and activists said
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had been trying for some time,
in vain, to dislodge rebels from the areas not far from central
Damascus that were hit by suspected chemical weapons last week.
Assad has strongly denied carrying out chemical attacks,
telling Russian newspaper Izvestia on Monday that the allegation
"insults common sense" and that the rebels were responsible for
what could be the world's worst poison gas strike in 25 years.
Even some locals in rebel-held areas hit by the strike have
questioned the rationale for such an attack so close to Assad's
own forces and just a few days after UN weapons inspectors
arrived in the city to investigate previous allegations of
chemical weapon use.
The hundreds of deaths caused by the Aug. 21 attacks have
also drawn threats of military retaliation from Western powers,
which could turn the tide against Assad's efforts to defeat a
2-1/2-year revolt against his rule.
But diplomats and rebels interviewed by Reuters said Assad's
generals had been trying for some time to push the rebel units
back to the southern ring road that separates Damascus from its
more rural environs and neutralise the immediate threat to the
heart of the capital.
The suburbs of Zamalka, Jobar and Ain Tarma sit in an
expanse of farming country known as the Eastern Ghouta. Along
with the town of Mouadmiya in the west, these areas had been
pummelled for months by battlefield artillery, warplanes and
surface-to-surface missiles before they were hit on the morning
of Aug. 21.
In the 72 hours that followed, Assad's mechanised forces
from the Fourth Division and the Republican Guards, the
praetorian units entrusted with defending his seat of power,
mounted a major push to retake the four areas, but well dug-in
rebels held out, sources said.
"The regime has been throwing everything he has at the
Ghouta, but it remained a thorn in its side. When you have a
large number of well-organised rebel fighters in an urban area
with lots of cover, using chemical weapons becomes very
tempting," a Middle East based diplomat said.
THREAT TO CAPITAL
When the revolt became militarised almost two year ago, the
rebels of Ghouta, mostly from the Sunni majority that opposes
Assad and his minority Alawite sect elite, were among the first
areas in the country to take up arms.
The rebel groups there include the Saudi-backed Liwa
al-Islam Brigade, Saladin Brigade, Jobar Martyrs Brigade, and
Tahrir al-Sham, a unit headed by Firas al-Bitar, an officer who
defected from Assad's army and has a reputation as a good
"If the rebel units were not so well organised, Assad would
have captured Ghouta long time ago," said Moaz al-Shami, a
prominent activist who witnessed fighting in Ghouta.
"The regime needed to kill 1,000 people in one go in Ghouta,
or whatever the final tally of the chemical attack proves to be,
because it was in need of a morale boost," he added.
In the last few weeks, rebel brigades based in Jobar, which
is only three kilometres from the central Abbassiyeen Square,
managed to open a supply corridor to the besieged Damascus
neighbourhoods of Barzeh and Qaboun in the northern sector of
the capital, opposition sources said.
The link brought the military threat from Ghouta closer to
the heart of Damascus and helped the two districts withstand
intensifying loyalist attacks, the sources said.
"Rebel operations in the countryside have been merging with
Damascus, and the regime could not take that. Assad would have
loved to gas Barzeh and Qaboun as well, but they are too
interconnected with loyalist areas," said Khaled Omar, a member
of the opposition Local Council of Ain Tarma.
"By hitting Ghouta, Assad thinks he is preserving Damascus
and destroying a popular incubator of the revolution," he added.
To the West, in Mouadamiya, activists said at least 80
people were killed when the district was hit with nerve gas an
hour after the attack on Irbin, Ain Tarma and Jobar.
Over the past four decades, Syrian authorities have
confiscated much of Mouadamiya to expand the Mezze military
airport and compounds for the Republican Guards and Fourth
Division, which now surround the town.
Most of Mouadamiya's residents had already fled after
Assad's forces had overrun the suburb several times in the last
year. About 9,000 civilians have remained in the district,
according to opposition activist Wassim al-Ahmad.
"The regime attacked Mouadamiya with chemical weapons because
it is strategic, and because after nine months of siege, it
found no other way," he said.
(Editing by Will Waterman)