Army regains ground in Damascus as rebels retreat
SANCTIONS: European Union imposes sanctions against four senior Syrian military officials accused of using chemical weapons on civilians –
BEIRUT/BRUSSELS: Syria’s army staged a counterattack in northeastern Damascus on Monday, but there were conflicting accounts of how much ground it regained after Sunday’s rebel assault.
A Syrian military source and a war monitor said the army had recaptured all the positions it had lost, but rebels said they were still holding on to some of their gains despite heavy aerial bombing that had forced them to retreat.
The army’s advance involved heavy fighting and intense air strikes, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a military media unit run by the army’s ally Hezbollah said.
A Reuters witness saw war planes circling in the sky above northeast Damascus, mortar fire, and a street with a line of burned-out cars from the fighting in the Jobar and Al Qaboun districts.
The Observatory, a British-based war monitor that collects information from a network of sources across Syria, said heavy fighting continued and that the army had unleashed more than 500 air raids and artillery strikes. The Hezbollah-run military media unit said that air raids were aimed at rebel supply lines.
Rebels had attacked in Jobar to relieve military pressure after their loss of ground in nearby Qaboun and Barza, a commander from the Failaq al Rahman group which is fighting there said on Sunday.
The intensity of the Syrian army’s counterattack forced the rebels to retreat on Sunday night from at least 60 per cent of the areas they captured that day in an industrial area that separated Qaboun from Jobar, a rebel spokesman said.
“Today the clashes are difficult and there is no progress in the face of this ferocious bombardment that is not just limited to the frontline but all night the regime was shelling the cities and towns in Eastern Ghouta in retaliation,” Wael Alwan, the spokesman for Failaq al Rahman, said.
Meanwhile, the European Union imposed sanctions on Monday against four senior Syrian military officials accused of using chemical weapons on civilians, after Russia and China blocked similar measures at the United Nations.
The move marks the first time the EU has blacklisted Syrian officials for the government’s alleged use of chlorine gas during the six-year conflict, although it previously accused one commander, Major General Tahir Hamid Khalil, of deploying chemical weapons as part of repressive tactics in 2013.
It has also targeted Syrian companies accused of manufacturing chemical weapons.
The four military officials, who the EU will name on Tuesday, will be banned from travelling to the European Union and will be unable to access any assets in the bloc or its banks, according to a statement by the European Union.
The EU measures take the number of people under its Syrian sanctions to 239, as well as 67 companies.
EU sanctions also include an oil embargo, restrictions on investments, a freeze of Syrian central bank assets held in the EU and a ban on exports of equipment and technology that could be used against civilians.
An investigation by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found Syrian government forces were responsible for three chlorine gas attacks and that IS militants had used mustard gas, but Russians said that the results were inconclusive.