BEIRUT: Syria’s troops crushed pockets of resistance on Damascus’ outskirts Tuesday as they advanced into suburbs briefly held by rebel forces, just hours before key UN talks over a draft resolution demanding President Bashar Assad step aside.
Government forces on Monday regained control of most of the capital’s eastern suburbs after dissident soldiers captured the territory last week. Soldiers moved early Tuesday into the two remaining towns still in rebel hands, activists said.
"Intense shooting was heard in Zamalka and Arbeen as the tanks advanced," the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, citing its network of sources on the ground. Regime forces made sweeping arrests in the nearby town of Rankous, activists said.
The death toll from Monday’s offensive rose to 100 people, making it one among the bloodiest days since the uprising began in March, according to the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group of activists.
The bloodshed has increased in recent days as Western and Arab countries stepped up pressure on Assad’s ally Russia to overcome its opposition to a draft resolution.
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. 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."
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe described what is happening in Syria as a "scandal" adding that Assad "has blood on his hands, so it’s not possible that he continues to assume responsibilities."
Juppe told French radio Europe-1 Tuesday, shortly before flying to New York for the UN Security Council meeting, that they would try overcome a possible Russian veto.
Also Tuesday, army defectors gained full control of the central town of Rastan after days of intense clashes, according to a town activist who identified himself as Hassan. He refused to give his full name, fearing reprisals.
The town was taken by defectors twice in the past only to be retaken by Syrian troops. Rastan is the hometown of former Defense Minister Mustapha Tlass, who held the post for more than three decades mostly under Assad’s father and predecessor, the late Hafez Assad.
Russia has been one of Assad’s strongest backers. In October, Moscow vetoed the first council attempt to condemn Syria’s crackdown and 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 UN resolution led to NATO airstrikes in Libya.
Juppe ruled out a military intervention saying "things are very different from what happened in Libya. For example, in Syria you have communities that are divided and any exterior intervention could lead to a civil war."
A French official said the draft UN 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 United Nations estimated several weeks ago that more than 5,400 people have been killed in Syria’s crackdown on the uprising against Assad’s rule, which began in March. It has been unable to update the figure, and more than 200 people have been killed in the past five days alone, according to activists’ reports.
Because of the surge in violence, the Arab League halted a month-old observer mission, which had already come under heavy criticism for failing to stop the crackdown. The League turned to the UN Security Council to throw its weight behind its peace plan, which Damascus has rejected.
The Arab League accepted on Tuesday a request by Qatar to postpone its next meeting for two days and to hold it on February 7. Qatar will also host the meeting in its capital Doha, instead of Cairo.
On Monday, Sweden’s migration board said it will temporarily stop all deportations to Syria due to the "massively deteriorating security situation in the country." The government agency said violence in Syria has worsened since its last assessment in December. As a result, it won’t refuse entry into Sweden for Syrians, or deport any Syrians from the Nordic country.