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NOW

Southern Syria
fighting heats up

Israeli officials reportedly relayed a warning to Western diplomats that the IDF would retaliate against any Hezbollah strikes in the Golan.

Syrian regime tank. (AFP)

BEIRUT – Fierce fighting pitting Hezbollah and Iranian-led troops against rebels in southern Syria has intensified, leaving dead an Afghan commander close to Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

 

“Daraa [outskirts] have witnessed violent clashes over the past few days between opposition forces and the Al-Nusra Front on one side and Lebanon’s Hezbollah supported by Iranian and Syrian regime forces on the other,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Tuesday.

 

The monitoring group added that the regime was seeking to seize “full control” over the triangle of territory stretching from the western outskirts of Damascus down to Quneitra in the southwest and Daraa in the southeast.

 

The regime’s offensive, which has been directed by Iran and Hezbollah, was first launched in the beginning of February. Despite reports that thousands of troops had been assembled for the campaign, pro-regime forces have made little headway amid the heavy storms that have buffeted the region in past weeks.

 

Battlefield balance

 

Alaraby Aljadeed reported Monday that rebels had counterattacked on Sunday after pro-regime troops seized a number of areas in surprise attacks the day before.

 

After a lull in fighting for a few days due to poor weather conditions and preparations by both sides for the next round of fighting, opposition forces managed to retake most of the areas they had lost, the report said.

 

Opposition sources told the London-based daily that rebels had taken control of the Tuloul Fatima area north of Daraa after heavy clashes with regime and IRGC troops, while the Tel Qarin area and town of Soultaniye had also been retaken.

 

Meanwhile, the SOHR reported that the Syrian regime had conducted barrel bombings early Tuesday outside the village of Kafr Shams, which lies 25 kilometers due east of the Quneitra border crossing, which was first seized by Al-Nusra Front lead militants in August 2014.

 

Amid the heavy fighting, dramatic explosions reverberated through a town southeast of Daraa after a large munition fire exploded.

 

“The roar of powerful explosions was heard in the Rif Daraa town of Taebah and the surrounding areas,” the SOHR reported, adding that “the blasts were caused by the detonation of around 1000 IEDs in a factory owned by an Islamist movement.”

 

Soleimani’s Afghan associate killed

 

Soleimani and Tavassoli

 

Liwa Fatemiyoun commander Ali Reza Tavassali and Qassem Soleimani. (image via RajaNews.com)

 

In a symbolic blow to the Iranian military efforts in southern Syria, a top commander in the Afghan Liwa Fatemiyoun militia established by Tehran was killed in the back-and-forth fighting in an area 20 kilometers northeast of Quneitra.

 

Al-Arabiya on Tuesday cited Iranian media outlets as saying that Ali Reza Tavassoli was killed in clashes alongside six other members of his unit, which has taken on an expanded role since Iran first began transferring Afghans to Syria in 2014.

 

The site RajaNews.com, which is close to the IRGC, described Tavassoli as “Qassem Soleimani’s trusted man in Syria’s Daraa,” and reported that he was killed on Saturday during an engagement in Tel al-Qarin, according to Al-Arabiya.

 

“Soleimani appointed Tavassoli as a Liwa Fatemiyoun commander during fighting in the Sayyeda Zeinab area [in southern Damascus] last year,” the station quoted one of the commander’s guards as telling RajaNews.

 

Al-Arabiya also cited Iranian media as reporting that funeral rights for Tavassoli and his comrades will be held in the Iranian city of Mashhad on Wednesday.

 

“Israeli warning”

 

As Hezbollah has pressed its offensive, a Lebanese daily carried a purported Israeli warning directed to the Shiite party warning it against provocative actions in the Golan.

 

Al-Liwaa newspaper on Tuesday morning quoted “Western diplomatic sources” as saying that Israel would hold Hezbollah responsible for “any hostile action against their troops or the [areas] facing the Golan Heights.”

 

The Israel Defense Forces will respond to attacks even if they occur in the disputed Shebaa Farms tri-border area between Israel, Syria and Lebanon, the diplomatic sources quoted “senior Israeli officials” as saying.

 

The Israeli officials also reportedly told the Western diplomats that Tel Aviv considers the Iranian-Hezbollah operations in southern Syria as “directly related with regional issues and specifically the ongoing negotiations between the major powers and Iran over the nuclear question.”

 

Israel has repeatedly warned against a Hezbollah and Iranian presence along the Golan and on January 18 killed six Hezbollah and Iranian officers in an airstrike on the Syrian Golan. Ten days later Hezbollah retaliated with an ambush against an Israeli patrol along the Shebaa Farms, killing two soldiers.

 

Al-Liwaa reported that the “aftermath of the last [Hezbollah] operation is not over yet,” with sources telling the daily that Israel did not respond more harshly due to “significant pressure from the US.”

A Syrian regime tank parked outside the southern Syrian town of Kafr Shams. (AFP)

After a lull in fighting for a few days due to poor weather conditions and preparations by both sides for the next round of fighting, the opposition managed to retake most of the areas they lost.