BEIRUT: Bashar Assad’s troops expelled Syrian rebels from an important Damascus district Tuesday, state media reported, bolstering the regime's hold on the capital.
The regime’s attack on opposition bases in the northwest neighborhood of Jobar comes as part of a broad government offensive in the past few weeks against rebel forces in key battleground areas across the country. Assad’s forces have made a major push for the strategic town of Qusair, which sits in a corridor linking the capital to the Alawite strongholds on the coast, and Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.
State-run SANA new agency said that government troops "restored security and stability to some vital areas" in Jobar, a district from which rebels had hoped to attack Assad’s seat of power in the heart of the capital. Government troops have flushed rebel brigades, including fighters from the Al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front, out of positions they had been using to fire mortars into residential areas, the report said.
In the district of Mazraa, meanwhile, shellfire killed a civilian near the Russian embassy, a government official and local residents said Tuesday.
The Russian embassy has been targeted several times by rebel rockets and shells, but Tuesday's shellfire was the nearest they had come to a direct hit.
As part of the regime strategy to target key areas across the country, Assad’s army were amassing troops around Aleppo, in preparation for a major offensive in Syria’s second city, opposition and government sources said..
Over 4,000 fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah have reached the commercial hub as part of military preparations to retake it, Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay Meqdad told The Daily Star Tuesday.
“They are stationed at the Military Engineering Academy in what seems to be preparations for an attack on the city of Aleppo,” he added.
The FSA spokesman said some 800 members of the Lebanese group were also staying at a student campus located in Hamadanieh, southeast Aleppo.
Hezbollah are embedded with government forces in Qusair, near the border with Lebanon. However, fighting alongside Assad’s forces deeper inside the country, such as in Aleppo, would mark significant widening of the group’s reach.
Ahead of what appeared to be a campaign to eject rebels from the city, fighting raged in and around Mennagh military airbase in Aleppo province, the state news agency and the opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Right said.
The Observatory reported “losses on both sides” during the battle for the base Tuesday, while SANA said the “army eliminated terror cells” in the outskirts of Mennagh.
Controlling the airport would allow Assad’s fighters to strike opposition bases without risking a ground offensive inside rebel-held areas. Rebels hold substantial swaths of north and east Syria, in Deir al-Zor, Aleppo and Idlib provinces, but the government – aided by military equipment from Russia – has a far superior airforce.
Fierce battles also raged in Khan al-Assal, southwest of Aleppo, SANA said.
On March 19, the government and rebels accused each other of launching a deadly chemical attack in Khan al-Assal – the first such claim during the two-year war. Reports of chemical weapons activity surfaced again Tuesday when United Nations human rights investigators said they had "reasonable grounds" to believe that limited amounts had been used.
In their latest report, they said they had received allegations that Syrian government forces and rebels had used the banned weapons, but most evidence related to their use by state forces.
"There are reasonable grounds to believe that limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used. It has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator," Paulo Pinheiro, who chairs the U.N. commission of inquiry, told a news conference in Geneva.
Syria's ambassador, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, in a debate at the U.N. Human Rights Council Tuesday, questioned the "neutrality and professionalism" of the panel.
Russian Ambassador Alexey Borodavkin called for sending U.N. experts to Khan al-Assal, noting "in this connection, we should recall that Damascus is ready to accept this group.”
A U.N. team of inspectors has so far been denied access to Syria.
Russia’s staunch backing of Assad has pitted Moscow against the U.S. and Britain, who have thrown their support behind the rebels.
At a European Union summit in the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg on Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin dismissed criticism of arms sales to Damascus but said Moscow had not yet delivered the S-300 missiles that Western governments say could prolong the civil war.
"As for the S-300, it is really one of the best defence systems in the world, if not the best. This is, of course, a serious weapon," Putin told a news conference, but he added: "We do not want to disturb the balance in the region. The contract was signed several years ago. It has not been fulfilled yet."
Friction between Russia and Western states has undermined prospective peace talks, scheduled for June or July, designed to find a negotiated solution to the war, which the U.N. says has killed at least 80,000 people. – with agencies