At least 14 Syrian rebels surrendered to Hezbollah in the border city of Zabadani Wednesday, as allied forces inch closer to claiming control of the last rebel stronghold along the Lebanese frontier, a security source said.
The surrender came as a major rebel group fighting in Zabadani announced the end of negotiations with Hezbollah and the Syrian army.
Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline Islamist group, said it had ended negotiations because of Hezbollah and the Syrian army's “sectarian cleansing” of Sunnis in Damascus and surrounding areas, as well as in locations along the border with Lebanon.
This conspiracy, Ahrar al-Sham said, is “in its final phases and Zabadani... is the first step in the last phase which will end in eastern Ghouta.”
The group, which has become one of the most powerful Islamist militias in northern Syria, said that it was tasked by Zabadani residents with negotiating with Hezbollah and Syria army in an attempt to broker a “humanitarian” solution to the conflict.
“But the case of Zabadani has exceeded the borders of Zabadani and has exceeded the responsibility of Ahrar al-Sham,” the statement read, adding that the forceful displacement of Sunnis is a “national and regional concern that affects all the Sunnis in the region.”
Ahrar al-Sham is part of a military alliance in Syria that includes the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. The alliance, known as the Army of Conquest, has been battling Hezbollah across the Qalamoun mountain range, including in Zabadani, and in other parts of Syria.
Hezbollah and its Syrian army allies have launched blistering attacks on Syrian rebel factions since Tuesday in the month-long battle for the town, located just 8 kilometers from Lebanon’s eastern border.
The allied forces have been advancing deeper into the heart of Zabadani after gaining control of large parts of the city and trapping rebels in the center.
At least 27 Hezbollah fighters and dozens of rebels have been killed since the launch of a military campaign to oust them from Zabadani began around the end of June or beginning of July.