Hezbollah forces from Lebanon have helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad win a major victory in a two-month long battle for control of two key strategic suburbs on the outskirts of Damascus, handing a setback to rebels, who military analysts say had hoped to launch an offensive on the Syrian capital.
On Thursday, Syrian State television announced the overrunning of the southeast suburb of Hatetat al-Turkman. The suburb is near a crucial road running by Damascus’ international airport. Opposition activists acknowledged the Syrian army advance there and in the suburb of al-Thiabiya and at Husseiniya, a Palestinian refugee camp.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group that relies on a network of incountry opposition activists for its information, said Hezbollah fighters and Shia Iraqi militiamen were heavily involved in the battle. Hezbollah is backed by Assad's ally Iran
and since the spring has been in the vanguard of several key ground-battles, including the recapturing by Assad forces in June of the strategic town of Qusair overlooking Syria’s border with Lebanon.
The Observatory said it had confirmed that at least 17 rebels were killed in the fighting in Hatetat al-Turkman, including several from al-Qaida affiliate Islamic State of Iraq
and the Levant (ISIL).
The reports of Hezbollah involvement were echoed by a senior commander of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on Thursday. Speaking at an annual conference in Herzliya, Israel sponsored by the The Jerusalem Post
, Major General Noam Tibon commander of the IDF Northern Corps said Hezbollah is the “elite force fighting today against the rebels in Syria.”
Hezbollah helps push rebels away from Damascus
Since midsummer Assad’s military have launched intense bombardments of the southern suburbs with the aim of strengthening major government supply lines and to ensure rebels are unable to consolidate their brigades and launch attacks on the city center, says Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington DC-based think tank.
Earlier this year rebels were launching regular bomb and rocket attacks on the city center but in the last couple of months they have fallen off.
“It should come as no surprise that Hezbollah and other regime allies are supporting Syrian army operations intended to push back rebel forces away from the capital,” Nerguizian said. Of the apparent breakthroughs he believes the advance in Hatetat al-Turkman likely the most important.
“If there are real successes here – successes the regime can hold onto and build on – it will ensure continued regime access to Damascus airport. It will also make it that much more difficult for the opposition to maintain a viable military presence in the north-south ‘corridor’ the regime has worked to consolidate.”
Rebels have carved out their own territory in Syria’s northeastern provinces but have struggled this year when it comes to gaining a foothold in the west and center of the country. As well as being launch-points for attacks on the center of Damascus, the southeastern suburbs are crucial for rebels, if they want to link up through the center of the country with rebel-held northeastern provinces such as Aleppo.
By controlling Hatetat al-Turkman, Assad forces can squeeze rebel supplies to other rebel-held suburbs to the east, said the Syrian Observatory.
The loss of al-Thiabiya and Husseiniya – they are located between two main highways running south to neighboring Jordan and near the Shia shrine at Sayida Zainab -- has triggered recriminations between rebel fighters, according to opposition activist Rami al-Sayyed.
Local rebel brigades had called on other militias to reinforce them but to no avail. “They were let down. The loss of these districts is largely due to lack of coordination and the reluctance to assist the defenders,” Sayyed said.
Lack of coordination between the fractious rebels has plagued the two-and-half -year uprising against Assad. “With the rebels we are talking about 120,000 fighters but they are 120,000 fighters with a command and control and communication structure that is at the level of the First World War,” said U.S. military analyst Nerguizian.
He adds even when the rebels appear to be holding a strong military advantage they are failing to exploit it. “So a lot folks would look, for example, at a Syrian garrison and say there are 200 Syrian personnel who are surrounded by thousands of fighters and surely it is a matter of time before the garrison is overrun by a mass wave event. But in the two-and-half year conflict we haven’t seen many such events because the rebels are just not able to do them.”
Al-Thiabiya and Husseiniya were hit by multiple rocket attacks this week ahead of a ground assault led by Syrian army tanks and Hezbollah fighters, according to opposition activists.
On Friday, Assad’s artillery sought to exploit their advances with a redoubled shelling of other eastern and southern suburbs such as al-Kaboun and al-Ghouta, according to Ugarit News, an online Syrian opposition news outlet.
In retaliation for Thursday’s strategic setbacks rebels launched a rocket bombardment town of Ghasula, just over a mile from the international airport, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement. The attack hit a gas pipeline feeding a power station and triggering a power cut to the capital.