BEIRUT/WASHINGTON: Syrian state media said Wednesday that some 175 Islamist fighters, most of them foreigners, were killed in an ambush on the insurgent-held eastern outskirts of Damascus.
The attack was led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has joined the government in an increasingly sectarian conflict that is pulling in fighters from across the region and destabilizing Syria’s neighbors, activists said.
Lebanon’s Al-Manar television, which Hezbollah operates, broadcast images of dozens of bodies of men strewn along a rural road running through open fields near Otaiba, a town in the eastern Ghouta area outside Damascus.
It said the Islamists were ambushed as they tried to leave the area to join fighting in other regions. But there were few other details on the attack and when it happened.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking later in the day, renewed allegations against Russia of helping the Syrian regime, accusing Moscow of increasing its aid to President Bashar Assad.
What Assad “is doing is outrageous, unconscionable, unacceptable, disgraceful, craven, it’s horrendous. And we all know that. Everybody knows that,” Kerry said.
The ambush near Damascus would be a significant advance for Assad’s efforts to cement his hold of the capital and surrounding roads, if the scale of the casualties is confirmed.
Syrian state news agency SANA said most of those killed were Saudi, Qatari or Chechen nationals and belonged to the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front or the Islam Brigade, a leading Salafist group.
Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 with street demonstrations demanding democratic reform, but turned into an armed uprising after security forces used violence to quell the protesters.
Around 140,000 people have been killed in three years of fighting, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group opposed to Assad.
The Observatory said Hezbollah carried out the ambush in cooperation with Syrian government forces.
“Hezbollah was the main group that implemented the ambush,” said Rami Abdel-Rahman, head of the Observatory, which is based in Britain but has a network of sources across Syria.
Al-Manar television said the fighters were trying to break out of eastern Ghouta to join battles in either the town of Deraa or the Qalamoun mountains, but it was not possible to confirm the report independently. The eastern Ghouta region is a semicircle of rural towns outside Damascus many of which have been cut off from food and other supplies for months by government forces.
For its part, the Islam Brigade issued a statement denying that any of its fighters were killed, instead accusing the regime of ambushing a total of 45 civilians, not fighters, seeking to flee the Ghouta region.
In recent weeks, pro-Assad forces have taken control of much of the Qalamoun area in a bid to cut off a rebel supply route to Lebanon and secure a broad swath of territory between Damascus and Assad’s coastal stronghold in Latakia.
Some analysts have said last month’s round of Geneva II peace talks, sponsored by Russia and the U.S., failed to achieve progress because of the lack of sufficient military pressure on Assad.
Speaking to MSNBC television, Kerry said that Washington was “committed to try to make a difference [in Syria] in ways that we have chosen within the law that we believe are appropriate and permissible.”
And he also admitted that it was challenging trying to work out how to put more pressure on Assad as the war is about to enter its fourth year with no end in sight. “Frankly, Russia is increasing its assistance to Assad. I do not find that constructive in the effort to try to get him to change his mind and be able to come to a decision that he needs to negotiate in good faith.”
President Barack Obama and his administration were constantly reviewing the options available, he said.
“There are limits on the ability of any nation to just spontaneously go out and use force whenever it wants,” Kerry insisted.
“There are laws you have to follow and there’s a process. The fact is that unless the nation that you’re considering invites you in, unless you’re doing it as a matter of self-defense or unless you have a U.N. resolution, there are greater limits than what you’re able to do,” Kerry added. “I can tell you that none of us are satisfied, not the president, not me, no one in this administration is satisfied with where we are today. We believe we need to do more.”
Separately, the Observatory announced that at least 3,300 people have been killed in fighting between an array of rebel militias and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), an Al-Qaeda splinter group.
The fighting started on Jan. 3 over power struggles and territorial disputes and has since spread throughout rebel-held territory in Syria.
The Observatory said 924 ISIS fighters had been killed as well as 1,395 militants from other rebel groups, which include the powerful Islamic Front alliance but also Western-backed rebel groups. It added that an additional 700 fighters from both sides were killed during the clashes but have not been claimed by the various groups due to “extreme secrecy.”
It said 281 civilians were also killed in the violence, which has ranged from traditional military clashes to car bombs and summary executions.