BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces seized a suburb of Damascus on Thursday from rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad in a push that has shored up government control of the capital’s outskirts, state television reported.
Assad’s forces, backed by Shi‘ite fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, have been gaining ground around Damascus since last month, storming several rebel-held suburbs and choking off supplies to others in the east and south.
Although neither side appears to have the strength to gain a decisive edge over the other in the 2-1/2-year-old conflict, the government’s offensive has bolstered its position ahead of expected international peace talks.
Syrian state television said the army had “extended full control” over Hatetat al-Turkman, southeast of Damascus near the airport road, cutting off an arms and ammunition supply route to rebels occupying a crescent of suburbs around the capital.
The armed forces seized the area in a 48-hour assault from five directions, the report said, showing live footage of Syrian soldiers deployed in the area.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Lebanese Shi‘ite group Hezbollah had assisted in the assault. Hezbollah is backed by Assad’s ally Iran and has sent fighters into Syria to support government forces.
The pro-opposition Observatory, which verifies reports through a network of sources around Syria, said about 17 rebels were killed in the fighting, including several from the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). About 25 government fighters were killed, it said.
The United Nations says Syria’s conflict has killed more than 100,000 people. Fighting has continued despite an international deal for Syria to eliminate its chemical weapons and efforts to bring both sides to a peace conference.
Insurgents have pushed back against government gains around Damascus but have failed to regain the momentum that helped them seize some suburbs and launch bomb and rocket attacks into the city centre several months ago.
On Thursday, rebels shelled the Jaramana district, a government-held area that links a ring of rebel-held suburbs and is also near the airport road, state media and rebels said.
“This area is very important to both sides,” said a rebel fighter in the area known as Anas. “Control over Jaramana means control over the airport road, and control over the airport road means destroying an important supply route for the regime.”
Rebels blew up a gas pipeline on Wednesday, knocking out power in much of Syria, including Damascus. The al-Habib al-Moustafa unit claimed responsibility on Thursday, saying it had planted explosives near the pipe.
The government, which appeared to be on the back foot a few months ago, seems to have recaptured the initiative while the rebels have become more divided and distracted by infighting over territory, resources and ideology.
Outside the capital, a car bomb exploded in a heavily-guarded district in the central city of Homs, killing three people and wounding about 60, a doctor at a local hospital said.
The blast was on one of the main streets in the Nozha district, inhabited by members of Assad’s Alawite sect and guarded by paramilitary forces loyal to the government.
Residents said women and children were wounded in the blast, which occurred as pupils were leaving primary schools.
In a sign of how regionalized and entangled the conflict has become, Kurdish militants clashed with al Qaeda-affiliated rebels from the ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra over a series of villages along the northeastern border with Iraq.
A spokesman for the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party said the group had captured several positions from ISIL and other Islamist fighters, but the report could not be confirmed independently.
Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin, Erika Solomon; Writing by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Janet Lawrence