The Syrian army fired rockets into and reinforced its positions around two Damascus suburbs on Friday, resident opposition activists said, as it battles to isolate the center of the capital from recent rebel offensives.
Opposition activists said forces loyal to President Bashar Assad had sent troops backed up by tanks to Moadamiah and Daraya, suburbs to the south west of the city that are close to a large military airport.
If rebels can hold those two districts they will have a continuous arc of control from the northeast to southwest of the capital, cornering Damascus against the Qasioun mountain range.
"Fifteen tanks arrived at the edge of Moadamiah this morning after and a night of very heavy artillery shelling and rocket fire into the suburbs," said an activist who asked not to be named. "They are trying to storm the area," he added.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-linked monitor, said that troops were massing on the outskirts of the areas in preparation for an advance.
Reuters could not independently confirm the reports due to severe government restrictions on media access.
Assad has been struggling to put down the 20-month-old revolt against his rule, which began as peaceful protests but has turned into a civil war that has spread to most of the country. Opposition supporters say 40,000 people have died.
Rebels have made advances of the outskirts of the capital and taken several military bases around the country in recent weeks but Assad's superior military power has leveled opposition-held areas with aerial and artillery strikes.
'Assad is maintaining control of weapons'
On Thursday, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry's political-security branch, cautiously spoke about the possibility that Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces could use their chemical weapons on the Syrian people.
At a conference for information, technology, and security that took place at Tel Aviv University on Thursday, Gilad said that "Use of chemical weapons is significant, and in the meantime the good news is that control is being maintained [over the weapons stockpiles], and they are not being used, but we're dealing with a very fluid system that requires a great deal of attention."
Gilad, who provided an in-depth analysis of the security situation in the Middle East, said that the Golan Heights is "one of the quietest borders in the Middle East."
" [Although] shells fall here or there," said Gilad, pointing out that "at the moment, the system is under control." Gilad also claimed that in light of various developments within Syria, the Syrian army does not pose a threat to Israel.
Gilad pointed out that "there are appeals within the regime, and it remains to be seen if it has its back to the wall."
"Let's say that the job of Syrian President would not attract many applicants, and is shrouded in question marks – how long will the regime last? That's why the violence continues," Gilad explained.
"Syria is in the midst of a difficult process, which has one stand-out characteristic: there is no clear winner. Each side remains steadfast, locked in a zero-sum game to overcome the other, and that's why the issue of using chemical weapons continues to arise," said Gilad.
Recently, the number of reports of Syrian attempts to arm warheads with chemical weapons has been increasing. According to reports from NBC, the Syrian army armed missiles with sarin nerve gas, but has yet to load them onto planes. Syrian forces, according to the report, are waiting for the order from Assad in order to do so.
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