By Sara Elizabeth Williams, Tom Coghlan and Tom McGee
Rebel forces have made their largest advances yet against Syrian government troops in the south of the country, driving to within 50 miles of the suburbs of Damascus and exerting rare military pressure on the regime.
Western-backed rebel groups and jihadist fighters from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front fought side by side to push government troops from the town of Al-Sheikh Maskin yesterday, overrunning a military base nearby. The jihadist assault was preceded by a wave of suicide attacks, including one using a UN armoured car captured from Fijian peacekeepers on the Golan Heights in August.
“Al-Sheikh Maskin is of strategic importance to both the regime and the rebels,” said Abu Obaidah, a field commander of the Free Syrian Army, the mainstream rebel force. He said that the rebels were poised to attack the town of Izraa, on the highway connecting Damascus with the Jordanian border.
Rebels control approximately 60 per cent of Daraa province, including the area abutting the Golan Heights. Western analysts said that the southern front now represented the most significant point of leverage to force the resignation of President Assad of Syria.
The steady gains being made are in marked contrast to the situation on northern battlefields, where infighting between anti-Assad groups has dissipated rebel efforts, and Nusra Front fighters have been hit by US airstrikes. In a month-long offensive, the rebels also took the town of Nawa, but at least 117 of their fighters were killed.
“This is not designed to take Damascus,” said Michael Stephens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute office in Qatar. “It is a take-and-hold strategy to give the opposition a bargaining chip. That’s the end game.”
Syrian rebel sources said that there was “good co-ordination” with western military officials operating a joint operations centre in Amman, the Jordanian capital. The existence of the base, said to be staffed by military officers from 14 nations, is denied by the Jordanian government.
“There are things happening on the other side, fighting between different factions, but we care about what’s happening on the border and in Jordan. If it’s happening on the other side, it’s on the other side,” Mohammad Momani, a government spokesman, told The Times when asked about Jordanian co-operation with rebel groups.
Last month, 15 rebel groups published a political manifesto that was strikingly moderate in its tone. The document called for protection of religious minorities, a transitional government of technocrats and the safeguarding of national institutions, including the military. It was clearly intended to reassure Christians and Alawites who, fearful of a Sunni jihadist victory, have sided with the Syrian president.
Rebel groups in the north, for their part, have been squeezed remorselessly between regime forces, the Nusra Front and Islamic State (Isis). President Assad is seen as the chief beneficiary of the US-led air campaign against Isis, to the fury of rebel groups, and states such as Turkey who argue that the overthrow of the regime should be the priority.
“It is a very significant advance,” Monzer Akbik, an envoy for the rebel Syrian National Coalition, said. “The regime is not putting forces to the south. I would say that the regime is having a resources problem everywhere. They are trying to cover it by remote aerial bombing and long-range artillery.”
Diplomats in Amman warned that the Assad regime was likely to respond with heavy bombardment, particularly helicopter barrel-bombing, of the captured areas. Rebel sources said that 12 bombs were dropped on their positions during one night near Al-Sheikh Maskin last month.
Despite their progress, one diplomat said that large-scale training of rebel fighters by western powers in Jordan was still many months away, because of the difficulty in vetting the fighters who would receive it.
The United Nations said yesterday that it was beginning talks with Syrian opposition groups to discuss a plan to “freeze” the fighting around the northern city of Aleppo, which is surrounded by government forces.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy, met Syrian opposition leaders in the Turkish border town of Gaziantep. The Syrian regime has said that it will study the proposal.
Israel refused to confirm or deny reports that airstrikes on targets around Damascus airport yesterday were carried out by its warplanes.
The Israelis have previously launched at least four airstrikes inside Syria, privately warning that it would strike when it believed that there was a danger of advanced weapon systems reaching the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
“We have a firm policy of preventing all possible transfers of sophisticated weapons to terrorist organisations,” Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli intelligence minister, said.