Syrian government forces battling alongside fighters from the Lebanon-based Hezbollah have nearly broken the rebels’ hold on a strategic region north of the capital, Damascus, Syrian state news media and opposition activists said Thursday.
A number of rebel groups, some of them linked to Al Qaeda, seized a string of towns this month in the Qalamoun region near the border with Lebanon and effectively cut off traffic on Syria’s most important internal highway, deepening fuel shortages in the capital.
But after sending reinforcements, the government appears to be regaining ground. On Thursday, its forces took the town of Deir Attiyah, which straddles the highway, and were fighting to enter the next town to the south, Nabak, Syrian state news media and opposition activists said.
The battle for the Qalamoun region highlights how intertwined communities in neighboring Lebanon have become in the nearly three-year-old civil war in Syria. The Qalamoun region has long served as an important pathway for arms, supplies and rebel fighters from Lebanon and elsewhere to enter Syria.
In seeking to cut those supply lines, the government has counted on aid from its allies in Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia and political party. Photos of funerals for Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria are often published on social media. On Thursday, The Associated Press quoted a source close to Hezbollah who said that a nephew of Lebanon’s minister of agriculture, Hussein Hajj Hassan, a Hezbollah official, was killed this week in the Qalamoun fighting.
The Syrian state news agency, SANA, said on Thursday that Syrian forces had seized all of Deir Attiyah and killed a number of rebels in battle, including three Saudi citizens.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition group that monitors the war, said that government forces had seized control of most of the town from a group of Islamist rebel brigades that included the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, both of which are affiliated with Al Qaeda.
Rebel control of the highway connecting Damascus and the central city of Homs has exacerbated fuel shortages in the capital for the last week, leaving only a handful of gas stations open where people have had to wait hours to fill up.
One Damascus resident who gave only her first name, Maya, said that some stations were limiting the quantities of gas sold and that drivers were leaving their cars overnight with their cellphone numbers affixed to their windshields so station attendants could call when their turn arrived.
A man waiting at a gas station in the Barzeh neighborhood said he felt as if Syrians were lurching from one crisis to another, with intermittent shortages of fuel, cooking gas, electricity and produce.
“We have nothing, just killing and destruction,” said the man, who gave his name as Abu Ahmed, 50. “The regime can find fuel for its warplanes and tanks, but it is hard for us to find 20 liters for our cars and trucks.”
It was unclear Thursday if the government would be able to open the road from the country’s north, where much of the fuel and produce for the capital come from.
Also in Damascus, a mortar round struck near the Russian Embassy on Thursday, killing one Syrian and wounding others, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
Such random strikes in central Damascus, believed to be launched by rebels in the suburbs, have become increasingly common.
Also on Thursday, the monitoring group released a video that showed fighters from ISIS publicly executing seven members of another rebel group.
Tensions have risen lately between ISIS and some other rebel groups, which accuse it of putting a higher priority on the expansion of its control in rebel-held areas than on fighting the government. The seven men who were killed belonged to a rebel group called Ghouraba al-Sham, which had been widely accused by other rebels of looting civilian property.
In the video, said to have been filmed recently in the town of Atarib near Aleppo, armed men in black masks stand over seven men who are bound and on their knees as one fighter reads a sentence.
Then, with a large crowd watching and some cellphones filming, the fighters execute the seven men with gunshots to the backs of their heads. As they fall, the crowd chants, “God is great!” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/29/world/middleeast/syrian-forces-press-rebels-with-gains.html?src=recg&pagewanted=print