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Hezbollah-led offensive presses rebels in southern Syria

Full-scale fight draws public admission by Syrian officials of Hezbollah, Iranian support for first time in four year battle
Deir al-Adas on Tuesday after Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah and Iranian officers, pushed rebels out (AFP)

Hezbollah, Syrian government forces and Iranian fighters have launched a large-scale assault on rebels in southern Syria in what Hezbollah has described as "the beginning of the war on the Golan Heights".

"Regime troops and their Hezbollah-led allies are advancing in the area linking Deraa, Quneitra [close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights] and Damascus provinces," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Nine government troops have been killed in the fighting since Monday, the Observatory said.

Syria's state SANA news agency meanwhile reported "advances as part of a vast operation by the army and armed groups".

The assault near the armistice line on the Golan is aimed at "breaking the stretch of territory that they (rebels) are trying to establish" at the border, a Syrian security source said.

The advancement on the Syrian rebels, including fighters in the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which started five days ago comes after weeks of sweeping gains for the anti-government fighters in the country's south. It also comes as the CIA is thought to have cut off or reduced weapons and salaries to several of the rebel groups it once supported in Syria’s north in place of supporting groups in the south, analysts told MEE last week.

With the offensive in the south, it appears that the Syrian leadership feels emboldened to make its links with Hezbollah and Iran public: for the first time in the nearly four-year civil war, Syrian state television on Tuesday acknowledged that President Bashar al-Assad's army is being backed by the two forces.

"The operation launched by the Syrian army is being fought in cooperation with . . . Hezbollah and Iran," a Syrian army officer told state television.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP: "It's Hezbollah that is leading the attack on the southern front."

An influential Iranian general, who has reportedly been near the front line against the Islamic State, was also quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars Agency that the Islamic State group, which controls most of eastern Syria, was "nearing the end of their lives".

General Qassem Suleimani, the once rarely seen commander of the powerful Quds Force, has become the public face of Iran's support for the Iraqi and Syrian governments against the militants

He has frequently been pictured on social media in Iraq with pro-government forces, including Kurdish fighters and Shiite militia units in battle areas. It is not known if he has personally been to the Syrian front lines. 

"Considering the heavy defeats suffered by Daesh and other terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, we are certain these groups are nearing the end of their lives," Suleimani was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

His extremely rare published remarks came in a speech made Wednesday in his home province Kerman to mark the 36th anniversary of Iran's Islamic revolution. Suleimani also said Tehran's regional influence was growing.

"Today we see signs of the Islamic revolution being exported throughout the region, from Bahrain to Iraq and from Syria to Yemen and North Africa," he said.

On 18 January, six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general were killed in an Israeli air strike in Quneitra. Local media has speculated whether this move was designed to stem the coming Asad-led offensive. 

According to the Observatory, which estimates 5,000 Hezbollah fighters are deployed in Syria, Syrian government forces on Wednesday seized the village of Deir Maker in the west of Damascus province, near Quneitra.

The advance comes a day after they pushed rebels out of Deir al-Adas village and the surrounding hills.

The Observatory said the battle for Deir al-Adas, which had been out of the government's control since January last year, killed 20 rebels.

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