Source: Associated Press – BEIRUT: Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah fighters swept south of the capital Damascus Wednesday, seizing strategic hills and villages from rebels and a local Al-Qaeda affiliate near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
State media and opposition activists said the surprise counteroffensive aims at forcing back rebels who had recently advanced closer to embattled President Bashar Assad’s seat of power.
The region is also important because it is located near Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The area has been tense lately, particularly after a Jan. 18 Israeli airstrike in Qunaitra on the edge of the Golan that killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general.
The Syrian government last year lost large parts of Qunaitra province to opposition fighters, many of them from the Nusra Front.
State television said troops Wednesday gained control of the town of Deir al-Adas and the village of Deir Maker, as well as the nearby areas of Tal al-Arous and Tal al-Sarjeh south of the capital.
A statement by the Syrian armed forces said the “successes” were important because they severed supply lines and communication between “terrorist outposts” in the Damascus countryside, the southern Deraa province and Qunaitra.
Activists said the operation was being led by Hezbollah’s special forces. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said their aim appears to be to eventually reach areas bordering the occupied Golan and set up a border zone under Hezbollah’s control.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists around the country, said Iranian volunteers are also taking part in the fighting. It said 20 opposition fighters were killed there Tuesday alone. The report could not be independently confirmed.
Hezbollah has been fighting alongside forces loyal to Assad, saying it is battling Sunni Islamic extremists who pose a threat to the whole region. Israeli officials accuse Iran, through Hezbollah, of working to establish a base in southern Syria to launch attacks against the Jewish state. Hezbollah denies seeking any military presence there.
Last month’s airstrike near the Golan killed a senior Hezbollah commander and the son of a slain top commander among four others. Hezbollah said the fighters were on a reconnaissance mission. Part of the strategic plateau was seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
Although Syrian state television and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar satellite channel purportedly reported live from Deir al-Adas, a rebel spokesman said pro-government forces only captured the town briefly before being forced out.
Gen. Ibrahim Jbawi, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s southern front, said the fighting killed or wounded 200 government forces and Hezbollah fighters. He said rebels also destroyed 13 tanks. His report could not be independently confirmed.
“The [Syrian] regime is trying to regain some of its standing” in the area, Jbawi said.
In Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Assad met with U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura to discuss the diplomat’s proposal for reducing the violence, starting with a hostilities freeze in the northern city of Aleppo.
De Mistura did not disclose details of the meeting, but state-run news agency SANA said the two discussed “new details” in the U.N. plan to freeze fighting in Aleppo “in a positive and constructive climate.”