Syrian government forces, allies capture extensive area near Damascus
By John Davison
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government forces and allies including Lebanese Hezbollah fighters seized an extensive area southeast of Damascus from rebels on Thursday and fought other insurgents near a highway leading southwest, a monitoring group said.
The advance is part of a wider escalation in fighting that has accompanied failed diplomatic efforts to end the five-year conflict. Syria's war has killed 250,000 people, created the worst refugee crisis since World War II, allowed for the rise of Islamic State and drawn in many regional and global powers.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was one of the most significant government advances this year, after its forces took territory in northwestern and central Syria. Insurgents have also advanced in some areas recently, including in Aleppo province.
Hezbollah's Al Manar television said the fighting in Damascus's Eastern Ghouta suburbs was part of a new military operation by the Syrian army against the rebels.
The fighting began early on Thursday when government forces and Hezbollah fighters captured the town of Deir al-Asafir, and then seized a number of other areas nearby, closing off a pocket of rebel control in Eastern Ghouta, the British-based Observatory said.
Pro-opposition Orient News television reported that government forces had "taken complete control" of the southern part of Eastern Ghouta.
The region has long been held by rebels. Most of Eastern Ghouta is still in rebel hands, but Thursday's gains could pave the way for further government and Hezbollah advances there, Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said.
Government forces and their allies have recently sought to exploit rebel infighting in areas east of the Syrian capital. The insurgents have failed to halt that violence despite attempts at mediation. Continued...