Syrian regime advances in Qalamoun, pounds rebel strongholds

Published March 31st, 2014 - 05:44 GMT

Syrian government troops and paramilitary allies continued their advances over the weekend in the mountainous Qalamoun region on Lebanon’s border, while taking heavy losses in the “Al Anfal” campaign in coastal Latakia province.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday that the regime and its paramilitary allies have suffered more than 600 killed and wounded since the coastal offensive began on March 21.

It reported that gunfire was ringing out in Latakia as funerals for regime fighters took place.

A military source told The Daily Star that the army was in the process of launching an offensive to retake the Armenian town of Kasab near the border with Turkey, which was seized by the insurgents as its several thousand residents fled.

The Observatory said the regime was bringing reinforcements from the coastal city of Tartous to try and stem the advance by the rebels. It added that several attempts by regime troops and paramilitaries to retake areas in northern Latakia had been repelled by the insurgents, who also launched mortar bombs at regime-held villages in the region.

Local anti-regime activists said the insurgents targeted one pro-government village, Bahloulieh, with seven Grad missiles.

Regime aircraft and artillery pounded Kasab and a number of neighboring locations, which saw fierce clashes over the weekend pitting several jihadist and Islamist militias against government troops and paramilitary allies from a group called the Syrian Resistance to Liberate the Province of Iskanderon, which borders Syria.

Dozens of insurgents are believed to have been killed in the clashes.

Pro-regime media activists, meanwhile, reported that large areas of rural Latakia and rural Jableh saw a cutoff of electricity when rebels targeted a power station in the region.

The area is heavily symbolic because it is the home province of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

On Saturday, government forces captured two villages near the border with Lebanon, continuing a weekslong advance that has cut a major supply route for weapons and fighters into the country from eastern Lebanon, activists and state TV said.

The villages of Flita and Ras Al Maara were the latest targets of a government offensive in the Qalamoun region after troops captured the town of Yabroud earlier this month. Tens of thousands of Syrians fled into Lebanon since the Qalamoun offensive began in November.

Flita, about 7 kilometers from the border with Lebanon, had been a major crossing point for rebels coming into Syria to fight President Bashar Assad’s forces.

State TV said the villages fell after government forces “wiped out the last remnants of armed terrorist groups and destroyed its weapons and tools they used in their crimes.” The Syrian government refers to rebels as “terrorists.”The Observatory also confirmed Syrian forces backed by fighters from Hezbollah seized the villages.

An anti-regime activist who uses the name of Abu Yazan Al Shami said rebels were continuing to fight inside the two villages. He said rebels expected the regime to try and seize the town of Rankous next, allowing the government “to completely cut supplies from Lebanon into Qalamoun.”

Rankous lies between Qalamoun and the Wadi Barada region, also on Lebanon’s border.

Government shelling and airstrikes on a number of areas in the mountainous Qalamoun region continued Sunday, while the Observatory said a Hezbollah fighter was killed in clashes with rebels.

While the regime earlier seized the village of Ras al-Ain in Qalamoun, the Observatory said that skirmishes were continuing on its outskirts, as the rebels have turned to the offensive, trying to pick off troops in lightly defended areas.

Regime helicopters dropped four crude “barrel bombs” on the town of Zabadani, in Wadi Barada, activists said.

In Aleppo, helicopter-dropped barrel bombs and government artillery fire targeted neighborhoods of the city, killing at least four people, while rebels also struck regime-held neighborhoods, killing two civilians and wounding at least four others.

The town of Aziza, near Aleppo, also saw fierce clashes that pitted the Nusra Front and its Islamist militia allies against regime troops and a Palestinian paramilitary force loyal to the regime.

The Observatory put Saturday’s nationwide death toll at 236 people, of whom 205 were fighters from the various sides.


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