As darkness descended over Damascus last Saturday, few of its 1.7 million residents could have had any inkling that a decisive battle to wrest the city from the grasp of President Bashar al-Assad was about to begin.
Insurgents gave the operation a name that reflected their hopes of a successful surprise attack on a city long regarded as an impregnable fortress for the Assad family: “Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake”.
“There is no going back,” Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, a spokesman for the joint command of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), told Reuters after the fighting had broken out. “We have started the operation to liberate Damascus.”
The operation, still under way, has come closer to toppling Assad than anything else in the 16-month uprising against his rule. By nightfall on Friday, six days after it began, rebels had seized control of border crossings and were battling loyalist troops on the streets of Damascus.
The attempt to seize the lair of a man whose father was known as “The Lion of Damascus” had been long in the planning, Saadeddine said. It involved 2,500 fighters who had infiltrated the ancient city’s suburbs a week earlier, he said.
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