From the front line in what looks ever more like a fight for Syria's capital Damascus, members of the Free Syrian Army appear to be closing in on President Assad's stronghold, at a terrible cost to both sides. NBC's Bill Neely reports.
BEIRUT - Syrian attack helicopters bombarded a suburb of Damascus on Monday and Turkey said it had scrambled warplanes near the border in the north, as a 16-month conflict entered a more violent phase and diplomacy appeared to have failed.
Fighting has come to the gates of the capital in recent weeks and is also raging throughout the country as the battle to unseat President Bashar al-Assad increasingly takes on the character of an all-out civil war, fueled by sectarian hate.
Syrian government forces have launched an assault on Douma, a city on the edge of Damascus where troops stormed a rebel stronghold two days ago leaving bodies rotting in the streets of the nearly abandoned town.
"The bombardment of Douma continued today using helicopters. Some activists entered the city today and they saw at least seven decaying bodies in the streets under the sun. One man had been executed inside his house," said Mohamed Doumany, an activist who fled the city two days ago and was now nearby.
"There is huge destruction in the city, which is almost empty. Only a few of its people remain inside," he told Reuters by Skype.
Diplomats from the West and Arab states who oppose Assad met the Syrian leader's allies Russia and China on Saturday in Geneva under the auspices of peace envoy Kofi Annan. But they made no progress persuading Moscow and Beijing to sign up to a statement calling for Assad to leave power, leaving the effort to forge an international consensus in tatters.
Turkey said on Monday it had scrambled six F-16 fighters in response to three separate incidents of Syrian helicopters approaching the border. Turkey also scrambled fighters on Saturday and has moved guns and soldiers toward the frontier.
Warning: This report contains graphic images. Shocking video has emerged of the moment a funeral procession was hit by an explosion in Damascus, killing dozens of people. NBC's Bill Neely reports.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Syrian opposition figures gathered in Cairo that their struggle to unseat Assad would end in victory.
"The Assad regime's guns, tanks, weapons have no meaning in the face of the will of the Syrian people. Sooner or later the will of the Syrian people shall reign supreme. And you will lead this process," he said.
Former Assad ally
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a former ally of Assad who has turned decisively against him, says Turkish military rules of engagement have been changed and any Syrian forces approaching the border and deemed threatening will be targeted.
The Syrian government tightly controls access, making it difficult to verify accounts of fighting on the ground.
Anti-Assad activists said there were heavy clashes in Deir Ezzor province near the Iraqi border where villages were under army fire. Rebels destroyed two tanks, they said.
In rural areas near Aleppo south of the Turkish border there were clashes following explosions inside the city overnight. Forested areas near the border were on fire, activists said.
Syrian artillery pounded the village of Talbiseh near Homs on Monday, targeting an area near the mosque. Video footage posted on YouTube showed a blast hitting the mosque's slender minaret, engulfing it in a cloud of grey smoke and dust.
A bomb targeting Syria's highest court has exploded in Damascus. NBC's Bill Neely reports.
Other footage showed high explosive rounds slamming into an unseen target behind the mosque every minute.
Security forces were also shelling towns in the province of Deraa, near the Jordan border, activists said.
Also on Monday, the head of the Arab League called for the fragmented Syrian opposition to unite and said a U.N.-brokered plan for a transitional government in Syria fell short of expectations.
Speaking at the start of a two-day conference that brought together some 250 members of the Syrian opposition, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby urged them not to waste the chance presented by the meeting to overcome their differences and band together to help lift Syria out of its crisis.
"There is an opportunity before the conference of Syrian opposition today that must be seized, and I say and repeat that this opportunity must not be wasted under any circumstance," he said. "The sacrifices of the Syrian people are bigger than us and more valuable than any narrow differences or factional disputes."
More than one year into the Syrian revolt, the opposition is still hobbled by infighting, although in general the disparate groups agree that Assad should have no role in a transitional period. One main sticking point is how to achieve a peace plan that would end the bloodshed and Assad's authoritarian rule. While some activists have called for international intervention in Syria, others have rejected the idea.
The failure of diplomacy to have any measurable impact on a conflict that the United Nations says has killed more than 13,000 people is testing the patience of countries in the region, especially Turkey, which reacted with fury 10 days ago when Syria shot down one of its warplanes.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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