May 8, 2013

By Ahmed Kwider and Jacob Wirtschafter

An FSA battalion detained four UNDOF personnel near the demilitarized area of the Golan Heights on Tuesday as clashes continued between an array of rebel groups and government forces in the volatile Quneitra province.

The Yarmouk Brigade claims it is holding the four Filipino observers for "their own safety" as a spokesman for the United Nations Secretary General "strongly condemned the detention" and demanded their immediate release.

Meanwhile, the pro-rebel Borak Media Office in Quneitra described fierce clashes underway around the village of Ghadier al-Bustan and Ar Rufaid just meters away from the cease-fire line with Israel. 

The fighting may have spilled over the border, with a journalist with ties to Jabhat a-Nusra saying that Assad forces had fired two shells Tuesday across the cease-fire line into Israel.

“Eyewitnesses said it was fired from Zubaida village, which holds one of Assad’s mortar battalions," said Ibrahim, who asked that his family name not be disclosed due to security concerns.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported cross-border shelling with ordnance landing near the border fence in Tel Fares.

An IDF spokesman told the newspaper that the mortar was most likely a stray shell fired by one of the opposing forces inside Syria. 

Uncertainty over the source of the shelling is compounded by the multiplicity of forces operating in the area, which include Israeli and Syrian troops, Free Syrian Army and Jabhat a-Nusra fighters as well as pro- and anti-government Druze militias.

Activists say the deployment of regular Syrian troops has diminished in the area, with the government increasingly relying on the “National Army,” the moniker of a local Druze militia, to man checkpoints and fight against FSA-controlled villages.

“They accompany the security [forces] every time they storm a village in Quneitra," said Omar, an economics student volunteering with the Quneitra Media Center.

“On April 2, they [the National Army] stormed my village, Deir Maker. They executed ten men and stole their cars. They also set checkpoints on the roads in Quneitra province and kidnapped people,” Omar said, allegations that could not be independently verified.

Last month the anti-government Druze militia, the Ahrar Haidar Battalion, attempted to deploy in the Quneitra area but reportedly suffered losses in the village of Haidar when they lost their leader Ghassan Saleh Zidan in an ambush set by pro-regime townsmen.

"The shabiha militia in Haidar [consisting of pro-regime Druze] killed Zidan" and a colleague, said Brigadier General Abdel Ilah al-Bashir, the head of the FSA's Military Council in the Golan area. The Druze in the anti-regime brigade operate under the auspices of the FSA. The ambush was designed "to shake the trust among the battalion's members," said al-Bashir, estimating the battalion's membership at around 30 people.

Despite the setback, the FSA is claiming victories in a series of battles in Quneitra.

“The FSA has defeated Battalions 23 and 29 that work under Brigade 61,” says Abdullah al-Omar of the Borak Media Office.

“All the [Syrian Army] checkpoints in this area are liberated and in the hands of FSA," said Al-Omar.  "Although the area is demilitarized, there are continuous violent clashes,”  he added, referring to the United Nations Observer force in the area monitoring the cease-fire line with Israel.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports 18 rebel fighters killed in ongoing clashes with regime forces in Quneitra.