Syrian Army Regains Ground from Rebels in the South

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Published Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Updated at 4:40 pm (GMT+2): Syria's army gained ground from rebels in the south on Tuesday, in what a monitoring group described as a large-scale offensive in the region backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters against insurgents which included members of al-Qaeda's Syrian wing.

The south is one of the last remaining areas where non-jihadist rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad have a foothold. Just a short drive to Damascus, the area remains a risk to the Syrian leader, who has otherwise consolidated control over much of the west.

"The operation started two days ago and is very big," Rami Abdel-Rahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, said on Tuesday.

“Regime troops and their Hezbollah-led allies are advancing in the area linking Daraa, Quneitra and Damascus provinces,” close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the monitoring group added.

For the first time, Syrian state television acknowledged that the Syrian army was backed by Hezbollah and Iranian officers.

“The operation launched by the Syrian army is being fought in cooperation with… Hezbollah and Iran,” a Syrian army officer told state television.

Abdel-Rahman said the offensive aims to take a triangle of rebel-held territory from rural areas southwest of Damascus to Deraa city to Quneitra. Syrian media and rebel sources said on Tuesday that battles raged in several areas of southern Syria.

Syrian troops had been on the defensive in the south, losing control of large areas of countryside near Jordan as well as parts of the border along with Golan Heights, according to regional military analysts and diplomats.

The assault near the armistice line on the Golan is aimed at “breaking the stretch of territory that they (rebels) are trying to establish” at the border, a Syrian security source said.

The southern rebels, often described as the best organized of the non-jihadist armed opposition, see themselves as the last hope for the Syrian armed opposition as the four-year conflict has become hijacked by Islamist militants.

But the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian wing, and other Islamist brigades and rebels fighting under the umbrella of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, who the US and other allies want to arm and train, currently have a presence in the region. Islamist insurgents also control wide expanses of Syria's north and east.

Damascus has repeatedly accused groups such as Nusra, who are active in the Quneitra countryside, of working hand in glove with Israel from which they receive logistic support.

Moreover, Hezbollah-owned Lebanese news channel al-Manar said the Syrian army had captured the town of Deir al-Adas and Syrian state television quoted a military source saying the town of Denaji between Damascus and the far southern boundary town of Quneitra was taken after "a number of terrorists were eliminated."

The Syrian government refers to all armed opposition as “terrorism.”

Al-Manar broadcast live images Wednesday from Deir al-Adas with fighting clearly audible in the background.

The leader of a non-jihadist rebel group in the area said the situation in Deir al-Adas was "dangerous" and that the nearby town of Deir Maker had fallen to the Syrian army.

Syria's state news agency SANA said the army had also killed insurgents near the town of Sheikh Maskeen, close to the main north-south highway between Damascus and the Jordanian border.

A rebel group in southern Syria calling itself "The First Army" said in a statement that it had started a battle to take control of Namer and Qarfa in the Deraa province and would attack six other locations. It also declared the main highway leading to Damascus as a military zone.

A reporter for the Lebanese Al-Mayadeen news channel, which has embedded its journalists with the Syrian army, said from Quneitra that the large-scale army operation had cut off an important supply route for rebels from Jordan to rebel-controlled areas west of Damascus.

The non-jihadist rebel groups known collectively as "The Southern Front" have received support from states that oppose Assad. The aid, some of it military, has been channeled through Jordan, a staunch ally of the United States and Gulf Arab monarchies that have taken a strong position against Assad.

More than 210,000 people have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the country's conflict in March 2011 and half of Syria’s population of 22 million has been forced to flee their homes.

The conflict began as a peaceful revolt demanding democratic change, but evolved into a brutal war after government forces violently repressed demonstrators. Islamists have since poured into the country from all over the world, seeking to establish an “Islamic caliphate.”

20,000 foreign fighters present in Syria

On Tuesday, US intelligence officials claimed that foreign fighters were flocking to Syria at an "unprecedented" rate, with more than 20,000 volunteers from around the world joining the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or other extremist groups.

The foreign fighters have traveled to Syria from more than 90 countries, including at least 3,400 from Western states and more than 150 Americans, according to the latest estimate from the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC).

A majority of the foreign volunteers who arrived recently have joined forces with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, it said.

The estimate of the total number of foreign fighters flocking to Syria was up from a previous estimate in January of roughly 19,000, according to NCTC.

No precise numbers were available "but the trend lines are clear and concerning," Nicholas Rasmussen, NCTC director, said in prepared remarks for a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

"The rate of foreign fighter travel to Syria is unprecedented. It exceeds the rate of travelers who went to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years," he said, adding that the volunteers come from a range of backgrounds and "do not fit any one stereotype.”

"The battlefields in Iraq and Syria provide foreign fighters with combat experience, weapons and explosives training, and access to terrorist networks that may be planning attacks which target the West," Rasmussen said.

Western governments have voiced increasing alarm over the flow of foreign volunteers heading to the Syrian conflict, particularly in the aftermath of jihadist attacks in Paris that left 17 dead.

However, many critics opposed to US-led coalition involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Western and Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia, played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.

Moreover, neighboring countries, namely Jordan and Turkey, have been accused of turning a blind eye on jihadists’ free movement on its borders with Iraq and Syria.

On Wednesday, Turkish security forces detained 13 foreigners and a Turk seeking to cross the border into Syria to join ISIS, Ankara's military said.

Turkey has been accused in the past of being lax in controlling the border, which is used as a transit point by foreign fighters joining the war in neighboring Syria.

The 14 suspects were caught on Monday afternoon in Oguzeli, south of the major city of Gaziantep in southeast Turkey, according to a statement on the website of the General Staff, or military headquarters.

After questioning, it said, the foreigners were handed over to police to be deported while the Turk was released on the orders of a state prosecutor.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in January up to 700 Turkish nationals have joined ISIS, raising concerns over the risk of attacks inside Turkey if the fighters return home.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Reuters in an interview that Turkey would do everything it could to stem the flow of foreign fighters, describing the Syrian conflict as a major national security threat.

The Syrian government however has consistently accused Turkey, a NATO member and one of Washington's key allies in the region, of playing a major role in fueling the armed crisis in Syria by opening its borders and allowing free access to foreign jihadists into Syria.

Social media sites Twitter and Facebook, along with many other websites, were blocked in Turkey earlier this month after anonymous accounts published new evidence in an ongoing case accusing Turkey of illegally shipping weapons to Islamist militants in Syria.

According to a UN report published in November, Turkey has been singled out as a major transit point for ISIS’ oil deliveries, with trucks often returning to Iraq or Syria with refined products.

During talks in Russia in November between Syrian and Russian officials, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that,“both Russia and Syria have concrete information regarding the sides smuggling oil from Syria.”

He added that his country already sent the information to the Security Council.

A video published on Al-Mayadeen’s website in late November revealed that up to 100 civilians and militants crossed the Syrian-Turkish border daily under the surveillance of the Turkish army. The footage made public by the news channel showed an unsupervised stretch of the border separating the Syrian governorate of Aleppo and the Turkish provinces of Gaziantep and Kilis.

According to Rasmussen, there was no single route the foreign fighters travel to reach Syria, but most eventually pass through Turkey "because of its geographic proximity to the Syrian border areas."

The recruits have taken advantage of Turkey's visa-free travel arrangements with about 69 governments, including with European Union states, he added.

Turkey claims to have bolstered its effort to stem the flow and deny entry to potential foreign fighters. The country now has a travel ban list that includes some 10,000 people.

But while Turkey and other European countries have supposedly strengthened border controls and taken other steps, "significant work remains" to prevent volunteers from heading to Syria or to stop them from returning, he said.

In the end, the only way to counter extremist threats and ISIS is to "diminish the appeal of terrorism and dissuade individuals from joining them in the first place," Rasmussen said.

ISIS militants are able to recruit new volunteers partly because of their savvy use of propaganda on social media, producing videos and appeals in a range of languages.

Apart from grisly images of murders of hostages and battlefield executions, the group also tries to reach alienated youth by promoting images of a welcoming, "bucolic" life in their self-declared caliphate and employing references to Western brands and popular video games, he claimed.

"They have also coined pithy 'memes' such as, 'YODO: You Only Die Once. Why not make it martyrdom?'"

Al-Qaeda and its branches in the Middle East and Africa have never displayed such an acumen with propaganda, he added.

The NCTC director's prepared testimony for the House Homeland Security Committee, which holds a hearing on Wednesday, was released to AFP on Tuesday.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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