BEIRUT - Syrian rebels fired grenades at government tanks and troops while the regime's armor shelled Damascus neighborhoods on Monday, sending families fleeing the most widespread fighting in the capital since the start of the uprising 16 months ago.
A ring of fierce clashes nearly encircled the heavily guarded capital as rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad pushed the civil war that has been building in Syria's provinces closer to the seat of power.
While the clashes were focused in neighborhoods in the city's southwest, the violence brought close to home for many of its people the strife that has deeply scarred other Syrian cities.
In downtown cafes frequented by the business and government elite tightly bound to the Assad regime, customers watched as black smoke billowed on the horizon and the boom of government shells reverberated in the distance. "Without a doubt, this is all anyone is talking about today," a Damascus activist who gave his name as Noor Bitar said via Skype. "The sounds of war are clear throughout the city. They are bouncing off the buildings."
Monday's fighting suggested that deep cracks were appearing in the tightly controlled facade of calm that has insulated Damascus from violence throughout the uprising.
In Moscow, Russia accused the West of trying to use blackmail to secure a new U.N. Security Council resolution that could allow for use of outside force to end Syria's civil war.
The Security Council is debating a new resolution on Syria as envoy Kofi Annan's plan to halt the fighting appears dead. Russia, a longtime Syria ally, is facing intense criticism that it is standing in the way of ending the conflict.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met Annan on Monday evening. Annan was scheduled to meet with President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
Russia has adamantly opposed international military intervention in Syria, and such a step has been all but ruled out publicly by Western nations.
But the text for a Western-backed resolution circulated by Britain that calls for sanctions would leave the possibility open for military enforcement under the U.N. Charter's Chapter 7.
The debate comes as a mandate for a U.N. observer force expires on Friday, and Lavrov insisted that the West was using the deadline as a bargaining chip. "To our great regret, there are elements of blackmail," Lavrov said at a news conference.