Syrian forces make gains against rebels in country's south

Syrian forces seize control of a number of villages in an offensive south of Damascus

Syrian forces fighting to push back opposition gains in the southern part of the country wrested control of a number of villages Friday, according to government and rebel accounts, as the military pressed an offensive south of Damascus, the capital.

The Syrian state news agency reported that army units had "killed many terrorists" and opposition targets in rural areas of Damascus and Dara provinces. Syrian forces launched a major attack in the region this week.

Mayadeen TV, a Lebanese news channel with journalists embedded with Syrian forces, showed images depicting loyalist tanks and troops making their way through deserted villages. The channel also carried an interview with an unnamed military commander who said the effort "is a wide operation that is continuing and ... will hopefully break the terrorists' links to Israel."

The Syrian government regularly describes opposition forces as terrorists and alleges that they receive support from Israel in the occupied Golan Heights. The Israeli government says it has provided humanitarian aid to the wounded and to fleeing civilians.

A rebel commander, speaking by phone from near the Jordan-Syria border, said the fighting was still underway.

"It was a vicious battle in the last few days, where [pro-government forces] tried to regain areas to reduce the advance of the rebels" toward Damascus, said Ahmad Hariri, a commander with a group affiliated with the rebel coalition Southern Front. "Yes, we lost some areas, we do not deny this, but the battle is still one of hit and run."

Each side said heavy losses were inflicted on the other. The number of casualties could not be determined.

Among the myriad opposition forces fighting in the south is Al Nusra Front, the official Al Qaeda branch in Syria.

The Syrian offensive has drawn considerable concern in Israel in part because militiamen with Hezbollah, the Lebanese political and paramilitary group, are fighting with Syrian forces. Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in 2006 in Lebanon and remain fierce adversaries.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem has vowed that Syria would thwart what he called Israeli efforts to establish a "security zone" in the south.

In a recent speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of trying — through its ally, Hezbollah — to "establish an additional terrorist front against us from the Golan Heights.... We are taking strong and responsible action against this attempt."

A presumed Israeli airstrike last month on a convoy outside the town of Quneitra killed six Hezbollah operatives and an Iranian general. The attack confirmed high-level presence in the area of Hezbollah forces and their Iranian allies.

Ten days after the airstrike, in a retaliatory attack, a Hezbollah squad fired antitank rockets into Israeli-occupied territory, killing two Israeli soldiers.

The Syrian armed opposition in recent months has claimed significant advances toward Damascus, the heavily fortified seat of power of President Bashar Assad. The Syrian military, with help from Hezbollah, now seems determined to win back territory on the southern approaches to the capital.

Opposition factions operating in the south have largely avoided the internecine fighting that has plagued the rebels in Syria's northern provinces. Despite cooperation with hard-line Islamist groups such as Al Nusra Front, rebel groups operating under the Southern Front banner are widely viewed as the last remaining bastion of the West-supported Free Syrian Army.

The opposition vowed that the government assault would be pushed back.

"The regime is defending and not attacking," said Abu Majd Zoubi, a spokesman for the Southern Front contacted via Skype. "The Southern Front is face-to-face with the Iranian regime and Hezbollah and is winning."

Bulos is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Twitter: @mcdneville

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