Syrian army advances toward strategic southern town

Syrian army advances toward strategic southern town
Syrian regime forces supported by airstrikes pushed toward the strategic town of Deraa on Tuesday after capturing a nearby military base, the army said.
3 min read
30 December, 2015
Opposition forces battling the Syrian army in Sheikh Maskin last month [Anadolu]
Syrian forces have retaken a key southern military base after heavy fighting with rebels and an al-Qaeda affiliate, and seized mountain villages after driving out Islamic State fighters, the government and opposition activists said Tuesday.  

The advances came after the army killed 17 fighters from Islamic rebel factions gathered at farmhouses in the southern Deraa province late Saturday, and also eliminated a powerful rebel leader on the outskirts of Damascus a day earlier.  

On Tuesday, government forces backed by allies captured the base of Brigade 82 in the town of Sheikh Maskin also in the Deraa area, which rebels had captured last January, the two sides said, adding that the troops also took control of the northern part of the town.  

The area is some 90 kilometers (56 miles) from the capital, Damascus.

"The clashes are very violent since the morning between the FSA and the militia, who are still trying to progress through the city," Ahmed al-Maselemeh, an opposition activist in Derra told The New Arab.

"Russian warplanes carried out twenty-five raids in the morning at least," he said.  "The FSA targeted regime and Hezbollah with rockets and artillery."

Sheikh Maskin is a key strategic location and since the beginning of this year has been under the control of the Southern Front Coalition of the FSA.  
Deraa was the birthplace of the 2011 Syrian uprising.

The Front has been described as one of the best organised opposition groups and is dominated by moderate rebels, although al-Nusra rebels are also reportedly fighting against the regime with the front.  

The regime offensive began on Monday, and followed the assassination of Zahran Alloush, Jaysh al-Islam leader along with multiple opposition commaders in Damascus over the weekend.  

On Tuesday, Al-Masalmeh said the government had advanced on a key southern military base, but had not completely captured it. 

"It's a very important gain for the regime forces. They've now cut the road between Deraa and Damascus," Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Deraa was the birthplace of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar Assad, which began with peaceful protests but escalated into a war following a brutal crackdown on dissent.

The conflict has killed more than 250,000 people and millions displaced.

Assad's forces have been on a major push since Russia began an air campaign in Syria on 30 September. Syrian troops and allied militiamen have launched ground offensives in different parts of the country, including areas near Damascus.

The latest developments could boost the government's position ahead of peace talks in Geneva next month.

State news agency SANA said the army inflicted heavy losses on the militants, but did not give a death toll.

Abdurrahman said dozens were killed on both sides, without giving a breakdown.

Al-Masalmeh said the rebels lost some 20 fighters in two days of fighting, with 35 killed on the government side as well as eight civilians. 

All sides said fighting in the area was ongoing.

Meanwhile in the Maheen area to the southeast of the central city of Homs, government forces took several towns and positions, consolidating their hold of an area around the city, the Observatory and SANA said. Homs was once known as the "capital of the revolution," but is now under almost complete government control.

The Observatory, which relies on local activists across Syria, said government warplanes carried out dozens of raids on IS positions.

SANA said Syrian troops had established full control of Maheen town and the nearby mountains, as well as the villages of Al-Hadath and Hawareen.

Government forces managed to "wipe out" the last group of IS fighters in the area and are now pursuing their remnants toward al-Qaryatain city, SANA said.

 AP/ Reuters contributed to this report.