BEIRUT: Syrian government troops captured a fiercely contested suburb of the capital Thursday after five months of heavy fighting, flushing rebels from their last hideouts and quickly moving to crush pockets of resistance in the surrounding countryside, activists and state media said.
The fall of Mliha, located some 10 kms southeast of downtown Damascus, marks the latest setback for rebels around the capital. Over the past year, the opposition has watched as one stronghold after another has either slipped into government hands or been forced to strike lopsided truces.
The military’s campaign around Damascus has succeeded in pushing the rebels farther from the heart of the city, while also strengthening President Bashar Assad’s once shaky hold on the capital.
Government troops backed by fighters from the Lebanon’s Hezbollah, finally seized the town, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on activists inside Syria.
“Mliha is under government control, but there is still fighting in the areas surrounding the town,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
Syrian TV said army units restored peace and security to Mliha after destroying the last of the terrorist groups there. The government calls all those fighting to topple Assad terrorists.
Syrian state TV and Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen and Al-Manar TV stations broadcast live from the northern part of Mliha. The footage showed bombed out buildings and dusty, rubble-strewn streets. Electricity cables dangled from apartment blocks.
“The Syrian army carried out early Thursday a critical military operation on the edges of the town through which it was able to take by surprise and destroy large numbers of Nusra Front terrorists,” Syrian TV said, referring to the Al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel group.
It showed soldiers waving their rifles in the air and shouting pro-Syria slogans in celebration. The crackle of gunfire could be heard, which the correspondent said was fighting on the edge of the town.
Assad’s forces have waged a ferocious offensive since April to try to dislodge rebels from Mliha, pounding the besieged town daily with airstrikes and artillery. Both sides placed a premium on controlling Mliha because of its strategic location near the highway to the Damascus airport and its proximity to the opposition stronghold of eastern Ghouta.
In the country’s north and east, however, government forces have fallen back in the face of an advance by the extremist ISIS group, which has seized several military bases and outposts and killed hundreds of soldiers and pro-government fighters.
The Al-Qaeda splinter group, which has declared a “caliphate” in areas straddling the Iraq-Syria border, continued to advance in Aleppo province after seizing a string of towns and villages from rebel militias a day earlier, activists said.
The ISIS militants also decapitated a religious official from the Suqour al-Sham militia, one of the seven members of the Islamic Front alliance, anti-regime news outlets said.
Mainstream rebels in the divided city of Aleppo, already squeezed by Assad’s forces, now fear the advancing militants.
Syria’s Western-aligned opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, issued an appeal for immediate U.S. military assistance to stop what it said was a two-front attack by ISIS fighters and Assad’s forces.
“The FSA (Free Syrian Army) needs an immediate surge of military aid in Aleppo, or the city and its residents will be obliterated,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a Washington-based senior strategist for the group.
The coalition also acknowledged defeat in Mliha, saying the rebels had withdrawn in the face of attacks by government forces and allied Shiite militiamen.