Smoke rises from a fire after gunmen from Jabal Mohsen fire a rocket-propelled grenade during clashes with rivals in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli yesterday, in fighting linked to tensions over the war in neighbouring Syria.
Damascus: Syrian forces backed by fighters from the powerful Shia movement Hezbollah were at the gates of the rebel bastion of Yabrud near the Lebanese border yesterday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
State television confirmed the news, reporting: “Syrian army units have advanced in the Yabrud area and now control its eastern approaches and northeastern boundary.”
The broadcaster said the offensive had caused a “breakdown in the ranks of terrorist groups”, the government term for rebels battling President Bashar Al Assad.
Meanwhile, Syria’s exiled opposition will be barred from a presidential vote to be held before July, virtually ensuring Bashar Al Assad’s re-election three years into an uprising against his family’s four-decade rule.
Today marks the third anniversary of the revolt, which began as peaceful protests calling for democratic change but deteriorated into an insurgency and then civil war after the regime brutally cracked down on dissent.
Assad has remained in power despite fighting that has killed more than 146,000 people and driven millions from their homes, while rebels have seized large swathes of the country. The opposition has repeatedly insisted that Assad must step down as part of any peace agreement, most recently in two rounds of failed talks earlier this year.
In keeping with a constitution adopted in 2012, the election will be open for the first time to multiple candidates, including from outside the ruling Baath party.
Assad has not announced his candidacy but is widely expected to seek another seven-year term.
A new electoral law approved by parliament on Thursday says any candidate must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years and not hold any other nationality. That effectively bars any member of the Istanbul-based National Coalition, an umbrella opposition group. The only other candidates who appear eligible would be those from the tolerated opposition in Damascus, who have little popular support and no connection to the rebels.
The election must be called 60 to 90 days before the end of Assad’s term on July 17.
Hezbollah, spearheading the fight to dislodge insurgents from Yabrud, and Syrian forces “drove the rebels off the hill of Aqaba” outside the town, said the Observatory, which relies on civilian, medical and military sources for its information.
“This is the closest point ever reached by Hezbollah and the army” to Yabrud, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
“Fierce fighting is also taking place on the northern edge, between the town of Sahel and Yabrud,” he added. “They want to completely encircle the Yabrud rebels to dislodge them.”
The Al Qaeda-linked jihadist group Al Nusra Front admitted “one position at Aqaba has fallen... causing brother fighters to fall back to rear bases”. But it denied rebels were retreating, insisting reinforcements were on the way.
An activist in the region confirmed the army and Hezbollah had taken a position at Aqaba some five kilometres (three miles) from Yabrud. The battle for the town is vital for Hezbollah, which first admitted its fighters were fighting alongside Assad’s forces in spring 2013. Hezbollah wants to sever a key rebel supply line to the Sunni town of Arsal across the border in eastern Lebanon.
It says car bombs that have been used to attack it inside Lebanon were loaded with explosives in Yabrud and then driven via Arsal to their targets.
On another front in the complex struggle pitting regime loyalists against mainstream rebels and rebels against jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL yesterday withdrew its fighters from Idlib province in the northwest and Latakia in the west, the Observatory said.
“The ISIL is no longer able to defend his fighters” in these areas because of clashes with other rebel factions, it said, adding the withdrawal began a week ago.
“Rebel brigades were about to engage them,” said the Britain-based NGO. Spurned because of its abuses of civilians and extreme interpretation of Islam, ISIL had already pulled out of several areas in the northern province of Aleppo since January.