Friday 23 February 2018

Regime retakes suburbs of Damascus from rebels

An opposition fighter from the Failaq al-Rahman brigade fires a machine gun in Jobar, a rebel-held district on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus. Photo: Amer Almohibany/AFP/Getty Images
An opposition fighter from the Failaq al-Rahman brigade fires a machine gun in Jobar, a rebel-held district on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus. Photo: Amer Almohibany/AFP/Getty Images

Sara Elizabeth Williams Amman

Syrian government forces said they have snatched back territory seized by rebels and jihadists in a surprise offensive in Damascus.

Rebel forces managed to briefly connect the opposition-held district of Jobar, in the east of the city, to a long-besieged opposition-held pocket nearby after overpowering soldiers on government checkpoints on Sunday.

The regime responded with airstrikes on Sunday evening. The aerial onslaught intensified yesterday morning, with locals reporting more than 40 air raids by early afternoon, along with heavy gunfire and explosions.

A Syrian military source said yesterday that the army had recaptured all the positions it had lost on Sunday.

The short-lived rebel surge was the closest opposition forces have come to the centre of Damascus in more than two years and comes at a time when they are losing ground elsewhere.

Rebel spokesmen said their offensive, brief as it was, contained a "clear message" for their adversary, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and his backers.

"Russia and Iran should know that a military solution is impossible and this is what they will see if they continue violating the ceasefire," said Issam al-Reis, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army's Southern Front, which took part in the operation.

Rebels have accused the Syrian government of repeatedly violating a ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia at the end of 2016. The mainstream opposition has refused to attend talks in Astana for this reason.

Read more: Suicide car bomber kills 23 in attack on Baghdad

The Syrian opposition has lost ground in northern, western and southern Syria over the past 18 months as Russia and Iran stepped up support for Mr Assad's government and Western and Middle Eastern backing for the rebels dwindled.

Mr Assad has promised to take back "every inch" of Syria since the tide of the war turned.

However, opposition groups still hold large swathes of the country, including a heavily populated enclave in Eastern Ghouta, east of Damascus, and several districts in the south, east and northeast of the city.

Sunday's attack demonstrated they are also still able to mount co-ordinated offensive operations.

According to a commander from the Failaq al-Rahman group, which was fighting in eastern Damascus, rebels staged the Jobar operation to relieve military pressure after the recent loss of ground in nearby Qaboun and Barza.

Meanwhile, Russia is setting up a military base in northwestern Syria in agreement with the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia that controls the area and will be training YPG fighters as part of the fight against terrorism, the militia's spokesman said yesterday.

YPG spokesman Redur Xelil said the agreement with Russia was concluded on Sunday and that Russian troops had already arrived at the position in the northwestern region of Afrin with troop carriers and armoured vehicles.

The move will likely anger neighbouring Turkey.

Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is waging an insurgency inside Turkey. "The Russian presence...comes in agreement between [the YPG] and the Russian forces operating in Syria in the framework of co-operation against terrorism and to help train our forces on modern warfare and build a direct point of contact with Russian forces," Mr Xelil said. "It is the first (agreement) of its kind."

Turkey has launched a cross-border offensive along a section of the Turkish-Syrian frontier to prevent further gains by the YPG, which controls swathes of northeastern Syria and the Afrin pocket of northwestern Syria. The YPG is also allied to the US in the fight against Isil in Syria, and is playing a major part in the US-backed offensive against Isil's urban stronghold of Raqqa, further east. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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