Syrian troops battered rebel positions in and around Damascus in an assault aimed at securing the capital, as Russia and Turkey prepared for talks in Istanbul on Monday on their differences over the conflict.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said artillery gunners targeted the districts of Hajar al-Aswad and Tadamun as well as the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk in southern Damascus.
The army also bombarded Yabrud to the north, Yalda to the south and the Eastern Ghouta towns of Douma, Harasta, Irbin and Haran al-Hawamid, in the area of the road linking Damascus to its international airport, it said.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have been trying to establish a secure perimeter around Damascus at all costs, turning the province into one of the main battlegrounds in the country’s 20-month conflict.
Analysts say the objective of the military campaign is to put the regime in a position to negotiate a way out of the conflict that the Observatory says has cost more than 41,000 lives since March 2011.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, was to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a landmark visit to Istanbul to discuss their differences on Syria.
The talks are to cover “reconciliation in the Middle East, the situation in the Gaza Strip, the crisis in Syria, as well as cooperation,” Putin’s foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov said in a statement.
Turkey and Russia are at loggerheads over how to tackle the bloody crackdown in Syria, despite growing trade and energy links.
Those tensions came to a head in October when Turkey intercepted a Syrian plane en route from Moscow to Damascus on suspicion that it had military cargo, drawing an angry response from Russia.
Ankara said the cargo contained military equipment destined for the Syrian defence ministry. Moscow insisted it was dual-purpose radar equipment which was not banned by international conventions.
Turkey, once an ally of the Damascus regime, has become one of its fiercest critics.
But Moscow remains one of Assad’s few allies, routinely blocking resolutions against his regime in the UN Security Council.
Russia also objects to Turkey’s request to NATO for the deployment of Patriot missiles near its volatile border with Syria. It has warned such a move could spark a broader conflict that would draw in the western military alliance.
But Turkey insists the US-made Patriots would be used for purely defensive purposes, and NATO’s response is expected this week.
On the ground, the Britain-based Observatory also reported clashes with rebels since Sunday in the central city of Hama, prompting authorities to send in reinforcements.
“This fighting… shows that despite the total control of the army and security forces over the town, the rebels have still managed to infiltrate,” the Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
The watchdog, which relies on a network of activists and medics in civilian and military hospitals, said a total of 134 people — 58 civilians, 41 soldiers and 35 rebels — were killed in countrywide violence on Sunday.