Syrian activists say that army defectors have attacked an intelligence complex in the Damascus suburbs in what appears to be one of their boldest assaults so far against government security forces.
The Wednesday attack came as Arab League foreign ministers met in the Moroccan capital Rabat, where they are expected to formalize a decision announce three days ago to suspend Syria.
In response to the Arab League meeting, supporters of President Bashar al-Assad attacked the embassies of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.
Members of the Free Syrian Army fired heavy weaponry and machine guns at a large air force intelligence complex in Harasta on the northern edge of the capital along the Damascus-Aleppo highway early on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Syrian Revolution General Commission told Al Jazeera.
The spokesperson said the attack followed a raid by the Syrian army on Harasta on Tuesday and carefully co-ordinated army defections which enabled former soldiers to run away with their weapons.
A gunfight ensued and helicopters circled the area, sources said.
“I heard several explosions, the sound of machine-gun fire being exchanged,” said a Harasta resident who declined to be named.
There was no immediate report of casualties and the area where the fighting occurred remained inaccessible, the sources said.
Syria’s has banned most foreign media from the country and tightly controls access for foreign visitors, making it difficult to verify events on the ground.
“This is probably not the first attack on [a] security headquarters,” said Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Lebanon. “But what is significant about this attack is that it is in Damascus, the capital. This shows how much trouble there is for the regime.”
In addition to other responsibilities, the air force intelligence services work with military intelligence to prevent dissent in the army. The two divisions have been instrumental in the crackdown on the ongoing uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which the United Nations says has killed at least 3,500 people since March.
Syria’s military is controlled by Assad’s brother, Maher, and members of their minority Alawite faith, a sect of Shia Islam. But the army is composed mostly of Sunni Muslims, who are a majority in Syria and have been defecting from the army in growing numbers.
The latest attack came amid increasing reports of defections among Syrian soldiers deployed by the government to quell the uprising.
Syrian authorities have blamed “armed terrorist groups” for the unrest, which they say has caused the deaths of 1,100 army and police personnel.
Arab meeting boycott
The Syrian government boycotted a Wednesday meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Rabat that was called to follow up on the league’s decision three days ago to suspend Syria. The suspension, which the league paused to give Assad’s government time to comply, came after Damascus failed to abide by an agreement to halt violence and allow international monitors.
“What has happened in Syria is very sad for all of us, we cannot accept that people are being killed in the way they are now. We are moving to stop the flow of blood,” said Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim, whose country has taken the lead in isolating Syria. “The Syrian government must apply the Arab League plan.”
“Where basic human rights are trampled and peaceful demands for change met by brutal violence, people are eventually compelled to have recourse to rebellion against tyranny and oppression.”
– Navi Pillay, UN human rights chief
Syria’s state news agency quoted an official in the ministry of foreign affairs as saying: “In light of statements by officials in Morocco, Syria has decided not to participate in the Arab meeting in Rabat.” The agency did not give details.
The Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi said earlier that Syria would be welcome to attend the meeting.
The meeting is expected to formalize the earlier decision to suspend Syria, though Bin Jassim told the Associated Press before a closed-door meeting that ministers could still decide against it.
In a rare move among Arab leaders, Jordan’s King Abdullah said earlier this week that Assad should step down in the best interests of the country.
Meanwhile, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, warned Assad on Tuesday that Syria is on a “knife edge”, adding that he no longer had confidence in the Syrian government and that the Syrian president’s actions threatened to place him on a list of leaders who “feed on blood”.
On Tuesday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 70 people had been killed in violence across the country in just 24 hours, making it one of the bloodiest days since the uprising began in March.
The rights group said that 27 civilians were shot dead by security forces, and that 34 soldiers and 12 suspected army deserters were killed in clashes, mostly in the southern province of Deraa.
Last week, the UN warned of an increasing risk of a Libyan-style civil war in Syria as defections among the army increased.