Syrian forces remain heavily deployed in parts of Damascus that were controlled by rebel forces over the weekend after launching a counterattack to reinforce the increasingly vulnerable capital.
Opposition groups, spearheaded by the irregular forces of the Free Syrian Army claim to have made a tactical withdrawal from the areas, mainly on Damascus’s northen outskirts, and have vowed to mount more guerrilla-style operations as their campaign against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime enters a new phase.
They say the aim of the weekend forays was to demonstrate the capital was no longer an impregnable regime stronghold, but buffeted from the escalating violence rife in many of Syria’s other towns and cities.
The soaring death toll in Damascus and across the country suggests the fighting has indeed reached levels rarely witnessed during the 10-month uprising.
More than 60 people, including loyalist troops, are believed to have been killed nationwide on Sunday and at least 30 more deaths were reported by early afternoon on Monday as both sides stepped up offensives.
Around 6,000 civilians and defectors, some of whom had taken up arms, are thought to have been killed during the crisis. Syria says at least 2,000 of its security forces have lost their lives.
Opposition groups claim the checkpoints they set up in the north and east of the capital late last week will be re-established once regime tanks and armoured vehicles are redeployed. Tanks have been stationed in suburbs as close to six miles from the heart of Damascus, one activist told the Guardian.
They have also been deployed in the second city and commercial hub of Aleppo, which has remained largely immune from mass demonstrations or violence since the anti-regime uprising began last March.
Fighting has broken out to the north and east of the capital, with opposition militias claiming to have have destroyed military vehicles on the road to Damascus airport.
Elsewhere in the country, an intensive regime offensive continues in the city of Homs, which has been violently contested by both sides since demonstrations there morphed into a full-blown insurgency late in the summer.
Continued heavy clashes are also taking place in the nearby city of Hama and in Idlib in the north-west, where loyalist forces have been engaged in pitched battles with defectors who have struggled to establish a command and control structure.
Although attempts have been made by Arab and European states to organise the Free Syrian Army, it remains largely a series of franchises answerable to a loose command and with only limited means to tackle the Syrian military head-on.
Defections from the upper echelons of the military remain rare. One of the highest profile defectors, Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Harmoush, is reported by several human rights organisations to have been executed by firing squad last week after mysteriously disappearing from the safe haven of a refugee camp in southern Turkey.
As fighting on the ground continues, diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the crisis are also expected to step up this week.
The UN security council is expected to vote on Tuesday on a resolution sponsored by the Arab League that calls for Assad to surrender his family’s four-decade rule to a unity government including senior members of the opposition.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, will travel to the UN for the vote, along with senior members of the Arab League, which has suspended its monitoring mission in Syria citing soaring levels of violence.
The resolution, however, is likely to meet the same fate as an earlier US-led effort, which was vetoed by permanent security council members Russia and China. Russia has said it will vote down any move to oust Assad, whom it sees as a strategic ally in the Middle East.