Assad army takes upper hand in bid to crush rebels north of Damascus
DAMASCUS - The Syrian army recaptured the strategic town of Deir Attiyeh Thursday, less than a week after losing it, taking the advantage in its bid to crush rebels just north of Damascus.
The takeover of Deir Attiyeh, on the Damascus-Homs highway, comes two weeks into an army offensive in the Qalamoun region, important to the regime for its proximity to the capital and the rebels as it serves as their rear base near the border with Lebanon.
It also comes amid intense international efforts to hold a Geneva peace conference aimed at ending the 32-month conflict.
The opposition demands any talks should lead to a transitional period during which President Bashar al-Assad's regime plays no role.
But forces loyal to Assad appear to be pushing for as many battleground victories as possible for leverage at the Geneva talks to be staged on January 22.
"Our heroic army has taken total control of the town of Deir Attiyeh in Damascus province after it crushed the terrorists' last enclaves there," said state television, citing a military source.
A high-ranking security official in Damascus confirmed the report, adding that "operations to expel the terrorists from nearby areas are ongoing".
On Friday last week, hundreds of jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Nusra Front, as well as other rebels, took control of Deir Attiyeh, according to a monitoring group.
Most of the rebels who had taken up positions in Deir Attiyeh were "crushed" and the town had been "cleansed," the security official said on condition of anonymity.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army was now in "near-total control" of Deir Attiyeh, though gunfire could still be heard.
A security source said regime loyalists also entered the nearby town of Nabuk.
"If this town is captured, all we'll have left is Yabroud and some other villages to completely block off the border with Lebanon and to stop any entrance or exit of rebels into Lebanon," said the source.
"The next phase will be to retake the south (of Syria). The north and the east are for later," he added.
Different areas of northern and eastern Syria are under control of the rebels, jihadists and Kurds.
Also engaged in the fighting in Qalamoun is the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, which backs Assad and has sent thousands of fighters into Syria.
On Thursday, a source close to the movement said a nephew of Lebanon's agriculture minister was killed along with three other Hezbollah fighters in Qalamoun.
"Ali Rida Fuad Hajj Hassan, aged 22, was killed along with three other Hezbollah fighters in Qalamoun" north of Damascus on Wednesday, the source said.
"He was the nephew of Hussein Hajj Hassan," Lebanon's agriculture minister and a leading Hezbollah member, he added.
Fighting raged elsewhere on Thursday, a day after Iran said it and Turkey, which support opposing sides in the conflict, would press for a ceasefire ahead of the Geneva 2 peace conference.
Nine rebels were killed around Marj in the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, said the Observatory, which also reported fierce clashes around Douma, another rebel bastion nearby.
In the northern city of Raqa, a surface-to-surface missile launched overnight from Damascus province killed at least six people and wounded at least 30 others, including two women, the monitor said.
Raqa is the only provincial capital in Syria to have fallen out of regime hands since the conflict broke out in March 2011.
It is now under jihadist control, but activists have frequently accused the army of targeting only civilian areas of Raqa, rather than parts of the city where the feared Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is positioned.
In Aleppo province's Atareb, ISIL executed Hassan Jazra and six members of his Ghuraba al-Sham battalion, after it had accused them of theft and looting.
In areas where it is powerful, ISIL has sought to establish itself as the sole power-broker, first by eliminating small rival groups over charges of corruption, then by opening fronts with bigger battalions.
The Syrian conflict has killed more than 120,000 people and forced millions more to flee their homes.