BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters swept south of the capital Damascus on Wednesday, seizing strategic hills and villages from rebels and a local al-Qaida affiliate near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
State media and opposition activists said the surprise counteroffensive is aimed 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 the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The area has been tense lately, particularly after a Jan. 18 Israeli airstrike in Quneitra on the edge of the Golan that killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general.
The Syrian government last year lost large parts of Quneitra province to opposition fighters, many of them from the Nusra Front.
State television said troops on 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 Daraa province and Quneitra.
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 set up a border zone under Hezbollah's control next to the part of the Golan seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
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 on Tuesday alone. The report could not be independently confirmed.
Hezbollah says it has been fighting alongside forces loyal to Assad against 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.
Veteran Israeli analyst Ehud Yaari said on Israel's Channel 2 TV that the Syrian army, along with significant Hezbollah forces under Iranian command, has made progress in the region, describing it as problematic.
"A problem is being created there as far as Israel is concerned," he said. "If they succeed in pushing the rebels back to our border, I think the last thing Israel wants is another front with Hezbollah."
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."
Associated Press reporter Ian Deitch contributed to this report from Jerusalem.