x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Rebels capture military base in southern Syria

Rebel fighters have captured a military base in the country's south after days of heavy fighting.

BEIRUT // Syrian rebels captured a military base in the country's south yesterday after days of heavy fighting, activists said, in the latest advance by opposition fighters near the border area with Jordan.

Opposition fighters battling the troops of the president, Bashar Al Assad, have been chipping away at the regime's hold on the southern part of the country in recent weeks with the help of an influx of foreign-funded weapons. Their aim is to secure a corridor from the Jordanian border to Damascus in preparation for an eventual assault on the capital.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels seized the air defence base, home to the Syrian army's 49th battalion, on the outskirts of the city of Deraa, the birthplace of the country's uprising, yesterday after battling Assad's troops in the area for several days.

The capture follows a string of other rebel victories in the southern province of Deraa, a largely agricultural region predominantly populated by Sunnis. Last month, opposition fighters seized Dael, one of the province's bigger towns, and overran another air defence base in the region.

An amateur video posted online yesterday showed what appeared to be rebels from the Suqour Houran, or Eagles of Houran brigade, driving an armoured personnel carrier inside the base of the 49th battalion.

Another video, posted by the Fajr Al Islam brigade, showed the rebels walking around the base as the heavy thud of incoming artillery rounds fired by nearby regime forces is heard in the background. A destroyed rocket, army trucks and radars are seen on the ground inside the base.

The fighting has escalated across Syria in recent weeks, as the rebels and the Assad regime try to gain the upper hand in the two-year-old conflict that the UN says has killed more than 70,000 people.

The rebels control vast portions of northern Syria that border Turkey. They've also captured areas in the east along the border with Iraq recently, but the strategic region between the southern outskirts of Damascus and Jordan - known as the Houran plains - is seen as a crucial gateway to the capital.

Both sides consider Damascus, about 100km from the Jordanian border, the ultimate prize.

Rebels have established footholds in a number of Damascus suburbs but have only been able to push into limited areas in the southern and north-eastern parts of the capital. Their only major foray into the capital, which took place last July, was brought to an end by a punishing regime counteroffensive that swept rebels from the city.

Millions of Syrians have fled the conflict, seeking refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, raising fears that the civil war could spread across the region as the fighting occasionally spills over Syria's volatile borders.

In Lebanon, a Syrian jet fired a missile that slammed into a house on the outskirts of the Lebanese border town of Arsal, according to Lebanese state media.