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June 16, 2015

Syria rebels launch Quneitra campaign

The newly-formed Jaysh Hermon coalition claims to have seized key territory in the first day of its operation.

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Rebels in Tuloul al-Hamar. (YouTube/Jaysh Hermon)
Jaysh Hermon rebel in Quneitra. (Twitter/Jaysh Hermon)

BEIRUT – A newly-formed coalition of Syrian rebels has launched an offensive in Quneitra in a bid to roll back regime forces in the northern part of the province, which borders Israel.

 

“In response to the [orders] of the almighty, ‘cling to the rope of God and do not disperse’ […] we […] announce the formation of a unified military coalition called Jaysh Hermon,” the insurgents announced Tuesday morning on Twitter.

 

“We promise the nation to work as one hand with pure intention for God until total deliverance from the criminal regime and those who support it.”

 

Following the announcement of its creation, the rebel alliance notched its first victory with the seizure of the Tuloul al-Hamar area, which lies between Quneitra and the southwestern outskirts of Damascus.

 

Jaysh Hermon serves as an operations room that brings together a number of Free Syrian Army-affiliated units, including the Sayf al-Sham Brigade, the Jesus Christ Brigade and the Osama bin Zayd Brigade, as well as several Islamist groups, most notably Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and Ajnad al-Sham.

 

In the fall of 2014, Syrian armed opposition groups seized a large chunk of the Quneitra province—including the region’s border crossing with Israel—leaving only a small area in the northern part of the province under regime control.

 

The Syrian government launched a large counterattack in January 2015—which was reportedly led by Iran and Hezbollah—in a bid to retake a triangle of territory stretching into Quneitra, however the offensive quickly stalled.

 

Rebels have since notched a series of successes in southern Syria, and at the beginning of June, the pro-Damascus newspaper Al-Akhbar reported that the armed opposition would soon launch a massive blitz in the region.

 

The Lebanese daily said that rebels were expected to attack the base of the Syrian army's 68th Brigade near the town of Khan al-Shih on the Quneitra-Damascus highway, as well the town of Hadar on the foothills of Mount Hermon.

 

Success in the northern Quneitra region would see the rebels move closer to the regime’s defensive positions around Damascus, including the Western Ghouta outskirts of the capital, which are currently being besieged by regime forces.

 

Battlefield advances

 

A video purports to show rebels storming Tuloul al-Hamar on Tuesday. (YouTube/Jaysh Hermon)

 

Shortly after announcing the start of its campaign, Jaysh Hermon touted on Twitter that it had “completely seized” the strategic Tuloul al-Hamar heights, which lie between Quneitra and Western Ghouta.

 

The coalition published videos purporting to show rebel fighters storming the mountain on Tuesday morning as well as a T-52 tank allegedly captured in the operation.

 

The FSA-affiliated Sayf al-Sham Brigade announced in a statement that its troops, in coordination with Jaysh Hermon, had “infiltrated regime positions in north Quneitra’s Tuloul al-Hamar and Mashati Hadar.”

 

According to the statement, the operation’s goal is “to open the road between Mount Hermon and Quneitra’s liberated areas.”

 

“Our heroes took control of Tuloul al-Hamar with the start of the battle as regime forces carried out a clear en-masse withdrawal.”

 

“In addition to the seizure of a 23 cm artillery cannon, two 14.5 cm machine guns and a tank, [another] tank was destroyed and dozens of regime forces members were killed and injured.”

 

“Heavy shelling on the villages north of Quneitra and on [the slopes of] Mount Hermon [was then launched by the regime from its] Regiment 137 and Brigade 90 [bases] as well as the villages of Hadar, Harfa and Khan Arnabeh.”

 

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed intense clashes were raging in the vicinity of Tuloul al-Hamar and Hadar between Syrian regime forces and allied militias on one side, and Islamist battalions and FSA fighters on the other.

 

According to the monitoring organization there are “conflicting reports on which side controls Tuloul al-Hamar.”

 

However, a pro-Syrian regime media-activist page reported that Jaysh Hermon had indeed taken Tuloul al-Hamar, saying a picture published by the rebels shows “the position they took.”

 

“It is called Tuloul al-Hamar al-Shamali and it is the highest military [position] in the area, [reaching] over 1,400 meters [above sea level,]” read the report, which appeared on the Facebook page Hadar al-Hadath.

 

“It overlooks the entire area and Hadar’s heroes are trying to take it back… The situation is now calmer than the morning hours, but it remains what it is.”

 

The pro-opposition Qasion News also stressed the importance of the Tuloul al-Hamar area, which lies between Mount Hermon along the Syrian-Israeli border, the Quneitra province and areas west of Damascus.

 

“Control [of the area] opens supply routes for opposition fighters in [areas] west of Damascus, after they were cut by the regime at the beginning of February this year when it took control of the triangle of territory south of [the capital],” the outlet said.

 

Meanwhile, pro-rebel outlet All4Syria cited a report by the Unified Press Office in the Southern Region as saying that the rebel advances in Tuloul al-Hamar had broken the siege on the nearby village of Beit Jinn and opened the road connecting it to Jubata al-Khashab, another small village in the area.

 

Message to the Druze

 

Following their victory in Tuloul al-Hamar, the Quneitra rebels addressed a statement to members of the Druze community residing in the province.

 

Jaysh Hermon accused the regime of “playing on sectarian tensions in the area.”

 

“It has urged the Shabiha popular committees in the Druze villages of Harfa and Hadar to move and try to support regime forces, but to no avail.”

 

“Your brothers, the mujahedeen in western Ghouta, have taken it upon themselves to be patient, think carefully, remain firm and seek the assistance of God almighty.”

 

The message to the Druze comes amid heightened fears among the Syrian minority group over their security; last week, Nusra fighters gunned down over 20 members of the sect in the northwestern Idlib province.

 

As Syrian rebels in the south of the country have advanced against regime forces, including troops stationed at the edge of Suweida, residents of the Druze-populated province have faced the choice between reinforcing their support for their regime or moving toward the rebels.

 

While the Druze-populated areas of southern Syria are under regime control, residents of the region have generally maintained an autonomous attitude against not only Islamist rebels but also regime efforts to enlist Druze locals to fight in far-off areas of the country.

 

However, as the regime has faced growing pressure, pro-Assad figures in Suweida as well as the Druze community outside the province have attempted to rally support behind Damascus and called on youths to join the regime’s army.

 

Druze youths in southern Syria have protested against the regime’s military conscription efforts in recent weeks, while residents of Druze-populated areas have moved to arm themselves.

 

Meanwhile, the Druze Sheikhs of Dignity have moved against the regime, accusing it of stripping Suweida of heavy weaponry. After this development, the group’s chief, Sheikh Waheed Balaous, said regime troops were behind shelling that targeted areas of the province’s capital last week, and called for the arrest of the local military intelligence chief.

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