Syrian troops backed by Hizbollah attack border mountain resort
DAMASCUS // Syrian troops backed by members of Lebanon’s Hizbollah group began a major offensive on Saturday – under the cover of intense airstrikes – to retake a rebel-held mountain resort.
Opposition fighters retaliated by shelling the capital Damascus, which is nearby.
It came as two coalitions of Syrian rebels battled to advance in regime-held western Aleppo, seizing an army barracks in one district, but being pushed back elsewhere.
Taking the rebel-held town of Zabadani would tighten Hizbollah’s grip on Syrian territories bordering Lebanon and would strengthen the Syrian government’s control of the Beirut-Damascus motorway. It is the last opposition-held town in the Qalamoun region.
Zabadani has been held by rebels since shortly after Syria’s crisis began in March 2011.
The shells fired by rebels into Damascus, meanwhile, struck several neighbourhoods, including the central Baghdad Street district. Another shell hit Damascus’ famous Dama Rose hotel, previously Le Meridien, near the affluent neighbourhood of Abu Rummaneh.
The shelling caused damage to the hotel, shattering some of its windows. The Syrian state news agency reported that one person was killed and two others wounded.
Hizbollah’s Al Manar television station aired footage from the battlefield in Zabadani that showed smoke billowing from much of the town as shells and missiles struck.
Al Manar said that Hizbollah’s fighters and Syrian troops were attacking from several directions and that the rebels are now isolated inside Zabadani, which is surrounded by mountains.
Syrian state television quoted an unnamed military official as saying that “terrorists suffered large losses”.
The Syrian air force conducted 15 airstrikes on Saturday morning, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group. It said the attack was being conducted by Hizbollah and Syria’s elite 4th Division.
Yesterday’s offensive came after Syrian troops and Hizbollah had intensely bombarded Zabadani on Friday, with the resort subjected to more than 90 airstrikes, the Observatory said.
In Aleppo, heavy clashes were taking place in several parts of Aleppo’s western side, the Observatory said, after two rebel alliances launched offensives on the northern city earlier this week.
The fighting in Aleppo is some of the fiercest since the Syrian conflict arrived to the former economic powerhouse in mid-2012.
On Friday, fighters from the Conquest of Aleppo alliance – made up of mostly moderate forces – captured a former research centre being used as a military barracks, the Observatory said.
“This is a significant strategic step in terms of the battle that has been going on in Aleppo in the past two years,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said, adding that it opened up lines of attack against several nearby regime-held districts.
A video posted online showed the capture, with fighters from one of the groups firing in the air, the three-starred flag of the Syrian uprising behind them.
The Observatory said that government forces had tried unsuccessfully to recapture the facility overnight and launched air raids against it on Saturday, prompting the rebels to partially evacuate.
A second rebel grouping, Ansar Al Sharia – which is dominated by more militant forces, including Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat Al Nusra — launched an assault against several government-held districts of the city on Thursday.
The coalition initially made progress, but was pushed back by government forces on Friday night, the Observatory said.
The monitoring group said regime war planes had carried out some 40 air strikes, and that at least 29 Ansar Al Sharia fighters were killed on Friday.
There was no immediate toll for regime forces.
Also on Saturday, the Observatory reported that 31 fighters from Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat Al Nusra, had been killed in a bombing inside a mosque a day before. Five commanders were killed, it said.
Activists said that the attack on Salem Mosque in the northwestern town of Ariha occurred shortly after sunset when scores of Al Nusra members had gathered to break their fast.
Syria-based activist Ahmad Al Ahmad, meanwhile, said that 15 Al Nusra fighters were killed and more than 30 wounded. He said that Al Nusra’s commander in the province of Idlib, Abu Abdullah Al Tunisi, was either wounded or killed in the blast.
The differences in casualty estimates could not be immediately explained as the area had been cordoned off by the extremist group. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.
Ariha was a government stronghold until it was captured by Al Nusra and its allies in May.
Meanwhile, ISIL released a video on Saturday showing 25 Syrian government soldiers being executed by teenagers in the ancient amphitheatre in the city of Palmyra.
The execution happened shortly after the group captured the city on May 21, with the video showing the soldiers being shot dead on the amphitheatre’s stage in front of ISIL’s black and white flag.
* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse