Syrian army, Hezbollah advance in campaign against rebels in south: Damascus

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 11, 2015 9:42 AM

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian government forces and their Lebanese Shi'ite militant allies took new ground in a major offensive in southern Syria on Wednesday, pressing a campaign against Sunni insurgents posing one of the biggest remaining threats to Damascus.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict, said the attacking forces spearheaded by Hezbollah had taken several hilltops and villages, and Syrian state television reported advances on Wednesday. A spokesman for a rebel group said they had lost ground, but described it as insignificant.

The south is the last notable foothold of the mainstream, non-jihadist opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, who has consolidated control over much of western Syria after almost four years of civil war.

Al Qaeda's Syrian arm, the Nusra Front, is also active in the south, which stretches up to the frontiers with Jordan and Israel, while rival Islamic State jihadi insurgents control much of the north and east of the country.

With diplomacy at a standstill, the new offensive appears to reflect government confidence in its ability to defeat its enemies in battle. A senior U.S. military official said last week that the Syrian conflict was now "trending in the Assad regime's favor".

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura met Assad in Damascus on Wednesday to discuss his proposal for a ceasefire in the northern city of Aleppo, but that initiative is effectively frozen, Western diplomats say.

(Reporting by Tom Perry, Laila Bassam and Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)