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Rebel forces vow 'great' Aleppo assault as Assad gains ground near Lebanon

IS makes fresh gains to the east, as Hezbollah fights Nusra in Qalamoun border area with Lebanon
Hezbollah fighters carry the coffin of Shiite militant Ali al-Hadi Wahbi, killed in fighting with the Islamic State group (IS) in Syria, during his funeral ceremony on March 27, 2015 in Beirut. (AFP)

The military situation in Syria has been shifting rapidly in recent days, with further upswings in fighting seemingly on the horizon as the various factions prepare to solidify gains or roll back defeats.

The last 48 hours alone have seen an IS offensive to the east, a joint assault on the Lebanon-Syria border by government forces and Hezbollah fighters, as well as fresh opposition pledges to launch a drive to take the northern city of Aleppo.  

The east

In the east, Islamic State militants clashed with government forces in the Deir Ezzor province, which lies about 150 kilometres south-east of the IS stronghold of Raqqa, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring network said on Friday.

The province is still largely held by the government, but IS militants have long been etching away at army positions there. If its offensive succeeds, Deir Ezzor would be the second provincial capital to fall to the group.

The latest assault saw IS make gains near the city’s air base, with the group killing the head of aerial defence at the airport, along with 19 other pro-government fighters. Fifteen IS militants were also reportedly killed.

"An IS suicide bomber detonated himself by [a] checkpoint, which IS then seized," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman. "Seizing the checkpoint gets them closer to the military airport."

The west

Following a string of defeats in the south near Deraa, as well in the nearby Idlib province, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad successfully launched a counter offensive on Thursday.

Backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, the Syrian army managed to regain control over a large area in Syria’s Qalamoun mountains near Lebanon’s borders where Nusra began making fresh advances earlier in the week. 

Dozens of mainly Nusra Front militants, who have held sway over the area for two years, were killed according to reports.

Hezbollah has admitted that three of its fighters have been killed, but it described as “lies” reports of heavy losses.

According to sources quoted in Lebanon's The Daily Star newspaper, Hezbollah and Syrian army troops seized five “strategic hills” in the eastern part of Qalamoun, establishing control over the towns of Assal al-Ward and al-Juba.

The area is located around 35 kilometres from the Lebanese border town of Arsal that has seen fierce fighting between militants and the Lebanese army.

According to the sources, Syrian army planes also pounded opposition positions in the area, while Hezbollah channel al-Manar TV has also claimed that its fighters killed three rebel commanders, fighting for groups linked with Nusra, on Wednesday.

In a televised address made before the latest drive, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that opposition groups in the area posed an unacceptable threat to Lebanon's security.

"This issue needs radical treatment. We are talking about a real aggression that exists and is present," Nasrallah said of the militants in the Qalamoun area.

"The (Lebanese) state is not able to address this issue ... so we will proceed with the necessary treatment and assume the responsibility and consequences."

The north

The large-scale pro-government assault comes on the back of gains made by the Nusra-led coalition in Idlib province, where the rebels managed to seize the provincial capital in late March before taking the strategical town of Jisr al-Shugur, close to the Assad stronghold of Lattakia.

Since then, Nusra and a patchwork of other militant Islamists groups have been looking to cement and expand their foothold in the north.

On Friday, 14 new rebel groups announced that they had joined the Conquer Aleppo Operations Room coalition ahead of a “great battle” to wrest control from the government, the group said in a statement.

The new groups are based in and around the city of Aleppo, and join leading rebel forces like Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam and the Levantine Front.

Fighting between government forces and various rebel factions has been intensifying ahead of the anticipated “battle” for Aleppo, which was once the most populous city in Syria and formerly the country’s economic powerhouse but has been ravaged by four years of war.

There were reports on Friday morning of a fresh barrel bomb attack by government forces on the old city of Aleppo.

One person was injured when a barrel bomb struck the central district of al-Almaji, according to SMART, a Turkey-based news agency run by Syrian journalists and activists.

Earlier this week, Amnesty International said that government forces were committing “crimes against humanity” in the city, where one of the largest hospitals in the area was forced to close on Tuesday after being repeatedly targeted by airstrikes and rocket fire.

Heavy government bombing is also continued in the southern province of Deraa where the army was pushed out earlier this year by an array of opposition ground forces.

However, sources in southern Syria claim that the situation has stabilised since late April when an apparently IS-affiliated group, called the Jihad Army, stormed a Free Syria Army stronghold in Quneitra, killing six FSA fighters and taking 20 other people hostage. 

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