Syria: The Week in Review (February 8-15) (Al-Akhbar (Lebanon))

Syrian children wearing orange jumpsuits stand inside a cage on February 15, 2015 placed near the debris of a building destroyed in bombardment by Syrian government forces on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma, during a protest to denounce the continuing killing of civilians in the Syrian conflict and the failure of the international community to stop the carnage. During the protest organised by Syrian activists, the children were imitating Jordanian air force pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh, who was reportedly burned alive by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, an act that was condemned by Muslim and Western leaders. AFP/Abd Doumany

As the Syrian conflict nears its fourth anniversary, Al-Akhbar English is inaugurating its weekly overview of the war on the ground, highlighting both notable political moments as well as developments of the major fighting in the country.
More than 210,000 people have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the country’s conflict in March 2011 and half of Syria’s population of 22 million has been forced to flee their homes. The conflict began as a peaceful revolt demanding democratic change, but evolved into a brutal war after government forces violently repressed demonstrators and Islamists poured into the country from all over the world, seeking to establish an “Islamic caliphate.”
Here are the most notable events of the deadly conflict from Monday February 8 to Sunday February 15.
BBC interviews Assad
In an interview with the BBC broadcast on February 10, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said third parties, including sources in Iraq, were conveying information to Damascus about the US-led campaign of airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria.
He added that there was no direct cooperation between the Syrian government and the United States.
Assad critics have accused Damascus of indiscriminately killing civilians in air strikes on rebel-held areas, using unguided munitions such as barrel bombs.
However, Assad denied that the army was using the makeshift bombs — crude barrels packed with explosives and shrapnel that are generally dropped by helicopter.
“I haven’t heard of (the) army using barrels, or maybe cooking pots,” he said, laughing.
“We have bombs, missiles and bullets,” he added, rejecting claims that the army was using indiscriminate weapons.
He also denied claims that Syria’s government had used chemical weapons against its own people in August 2013, in an attack outside Damascus that killed up to 1,400 people and led to the Syrian regime relinquishing its chemical weapons arsenal due to international pressure.
The main frontlines
Eastern Ghouta
The ongoing battle in the opposition bastion of Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus’ suburbs, witnessed a turning-point at the beginning of last week.
Eastern Ghouta has been under siege by the Syrian regime for nearly two years, leading to severe food and medical shortages. Since mid-2012, the Syrian army has carried out frequent air raids there and on other on rebel-held areas.
According to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), 84 people were killed in the past week in Eastern Ghouta alone, including 68 civilians.
According to the VDC, Damascus’ suburbs have so far witnessed the most severe loss of lives in the country.
The dangerous conditions on the ground make it very difficult to independently confirm casualty tolls in Syria.
Former rebel militiamen who have switched sides and joined pro-government forces are engaged in a fierce battle against Islamist insurgents near Damascus, sources said on February 8.
Jaysh al-Wafaa, whose name in Arabic translates as “The Loyalty Army,” was formed some three months ago, more than a year into a suffocating regime siege of the Eastern Ghouta area.
According to Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, among the ranks in Jaysh al-Wafaa are “armed men who, after more than a year under siege, handed themselves in to the regime.”
On February 9, at least 15 people were killed and dozens wounded in army’s airstrikes on the city of Douma, in the Eastern Ghouta area.
The area was still reeling from a massive army aerial assault on February 5 that came after rebels fired more than 120 rockets and mortar rounds into the capital.
The rebel barrage killed 10 people in Damascus, while the army airstrikes and surface-to-surface missiles fired at Eastern Ghouta killed at least 82 people up until Monday, according to the Observatory.
State news agency SANA reported that a large number of “terrorists” had been killed in Eastern Ghouta without specifying the exact number. According to SANA’s field reporter however, most of those killed were foreign fighters, mainly Saudi and Libyans.
The Syrian government designates all armed opposition groups as “terrorists.”
Also on Monday February 9, pro-opposition Local Coordination Committees activist group accused Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), a powerful Islamist group near Damascus, of detaining a group of their colleagues.
An LCC spokeswoman said that six activists had been taken from their office on Monday, while the Erbin committee said one had since been set free.
Jaysh al-Islam is the most powerful rebel group operating in the Eastern Ghouta area where Erbin is located. It was formed by a merger of rebel factions in 2013 and has received backing from Saudi Arabia.
Jaysh al-Islam has been accused of also being behind the abduction of four prominent activists known as the Douma Four — Razan Zeitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil and Nazem al-Hamadi — in December 2013.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said on February 12 that Eastern Ghouta was facing a severe shortage in doctors, severely limiting the ability to treat patients in the area.
“The number of patients treated in the hospitals we support has gone beyond breaking point,” MSF director of operations, Dr. Bart Janssens, said.
“The number of requests for medical supplies has shot up,” he added.
The Observatory announced on February 12 that at least 183 people have been killed in raids in ten days, most of them civilians.
The southern battle
Meanwhile, battles raged on in several southern provinces in Syria, pitting Western-backed rebels and a local al-Qaeda affiliate against the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters.
The Syrian army, backed by Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah, had made significant gains on the ground in a sweeping offensive against rebel and jihadist outposts in the south.
It was the first time the state-run news outlet confirmed that the Syrian army was backed by Hezbollah. Meanwhile, pro-opposition sources claimed that the southern offense was being led by the Lebanese resistance movement, quoting militants as saying that the Syrian army had no role in the battle.
“Regime troops and their Hezbollah-led allies are advancing in the area linking Daraa, Quneitra and Damascus provinces,” close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the Observatory said on Tuesday.
The Syrian army advanced steadily southward, claiming control of the villaged of Deir al-Adas, al-Danaji, Deir Maker, and the hills of Masih, Mer’i, al-Arous, and al-Sarjah.
With the capture of these towns, the first objectives of the army’s southern offensive were reached, according to an army official interviewed by Al-Akhbar.
A military statement issued on Wednesday evening said that “the importance of the successes achieved by the Syrian Arab Army soldiers in the southern region is that they bolster and secure the Damascus-Quneitra axis and the Damascus-Daraa axis, and cut off the supply and communication lines between terrorist outposts in the western Damascus countryside and the Daraa and Quneitra countryside. Also, control over the main hills can further bolster military successes in this area.”
After taking control of strategic hills, the Syrian army appears to be close to recapturing the areas of Khirbet Sultana and Talat Fatima, where rebel activity had ceased this past week following intensive artillery strikes by the Syrian army against armed opposition posts there.
The battle — the most serious effort to date by the government to take back the south — was mostly brought to a halt on Thursday by snow.
“There is a fierce storm moving through the country,” one field commander in Deir al-Adas told Al-Akhbar. As a result, the Syrian army relied mainly on artillery batteries, “the god of war” as the soldiers call them, to shell targets directly.
According to the Observatory’s estimates on Thursday, four days of fighting had killed 19 combatants on the government side and 48 on the opposition side.
The Syrian government doesn’t give death toll estimates for either side of the conflict.
On Saturday, a reporter and a technician for the state-run Syrian news channel were injured in Deir al-Adas, Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported.
The south is one of the last remaining areas where non-jihadist rebels fighting Assad have a foothold. Just a short drive from Damascus, the area remains a risk to the Syrian leader, who has otherwise consolidated control over much of the west.
Syrian troops had been on the defensive in the south, losing control of large swaths of countryside near Jordan as well as areas along the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, according to regional military analysts and diplomats.
Multiple Lebanese media outlets commented on the advances of the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters in the south, stating that the decision to launch the southern offensive had been taken several weeks ago, after an attack in the southern Syrian area of Quneitra. An Israeli missile targeted a convoy in Quneitra killing an Iranian general and six Hezbollah fighters, including a senior commander and the son of renowned Hezbollah senior commander Imad Mughniyeh, Jihad Mughniyeh.
On Sunday, SANA quoted People’s Assembly speaker Mohammed Jihad al-Laham as saying that the ultimate goal of the southern battle was “the occupied Golan.”
Laham added that the liberation of the occupied territories had started, and that the Syrian army would not stop until all territories were restored, “no matter what the price will be.”
The assault near the armistice line on the Golan was aimed at “breaking the stretch of territory that they (rebels) are trying to establish” at the border, a Syrian security source said on Thursday.
The southern rebels, often described as the best organized of the non-jihadist armed opposition, see themselves as the last hope for the Syrian armed opposition as the four-year conflict has become hijacked by Islamist militants.
But the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, and other Islamist brigades and rebels fighting under the umbrella of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, who the US and other allies want to arm and train, currently have a presence in the region.
Damascus has repeatedly accused groups such as Nusra, who are active in the Quneitra countryside, of working hand in glove with Israel from which they receive logistic support.
Nusra is the key party spearheading the coming confrontation with pro-government fighters. Military sources have said that the group’s militants possess anti-tank (TOW) missiles, US-made advanced weapons, and an encrypted communications network that is hard to penetrate.
Israeli media outlets have reported that “the insurgents have failed to halt the advances, and Hezbollah’s next target will be Tal al-Harah,” and expressed concern over the possibility of Hezbollah deploying on the border line with Israel in the Golan Heights.
Meanwhile, regional and Israeli media outlets are reporting that the Israeli army is on alert and has deployed near the occupied Golan Heights region. Israeli Channel 10 reported concerns over the fast approaches of the Hezbollah and the Syrian army near the northern borders of Occupied Palestine.
Kobane and the northern fronts
Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdish forces have set their sights on taking back Tal Abyad, another strategic town on the border with Turkey, after recapturing Kobane, the Observatory announced early last week.
Tal Abyad, located about 65 kilometers east of Kobane, is an Arab and Kurd town in the Syrian province of Raqqa occupied by ISIS and used by jihadists to cross the Turkish border.
“The next battle after Kobane is Tal Abyad,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said on Monday.
However, there have been no further updates on Kurdish advances in Tal Abyad.
On February 12, a Japanese journalist who had planned to visit Kobane accused his government of muzzling the press, after officials confiscated his passport to stop him from traveling to war-torn Syria.
The move came with Japan still reeling from the brutal murder of two citizens — war correspondent Kenji Goto and his friend Haruna Yukawa — by ISIS in Syria in January.