Free Syrian Army-affiliated battalions reportedly captured at least some of the embattled town of Beit Sahem in southern Damascus from Jabhat a-Nusra after weeks of residents repeatedly demanding the Al-Qaeda affiliate leave, a local citizen journalist told Syria Direct Wednesday.
“Beit Sahem is now under the shared control of [FSA] security forces in southern Damascus,” said Adam a-Shami, the pseudonym of the Beit Sahem-based activist.
But battles inside the district remain ongoing, with Nusra not appearing to fully withdraw as of publication.
The news of FSA’s control over the towns comes in the wake of the Local Coordination Committee’s official demand on Tuesday that Jabhat a-Nusra leave the area.
Nusra was forced to withdraw from the district at the end of January after repeated popular protests called on them to leave. It was not immediately clear how the Qaeda-backed group re-inserted itself into the district.
Local residents protested Nusra’s presence in town last Friday, which led to fighting between the Islamist group and a local FSA battalion.
“FSA battalions won control over the residential neighborhoods and streets of [Beit Sahem],” reported the grassroots pro-opposition news agency Rabiya Thuwra.
Beit Sahem, along with the adjacent towns of Yelda and Babila, are located next to the strategic highway linking Damascus with the Damascus International Airport. The three towns agreed to truces with the regime in early 2014 after being encircled by regime forces for over a year.
The regime regularly cites the presence of Jabhat a-Nusra as a reason for violating its truce with the towns and bombing the area.
Rebels capture Handarat village in north Aleppo
The rebels are advancing in their capture of Handarat, reportedly taking at least half of the town that serves as their gateway into Aleppo and, for now, thwarting the regime’s attempt in recent months to completely encircle Syria’s largest city.
Although Nusra fighters claim to have completely liberated Handarat village, Abu Salih Tahan, the commander of Ahrar a-Sham, warned on Monday that those who had not participated in the operation should hold their tongues, as part of the village remains under regime control.
A rebel coalition led by Jabhat a-Nusra that includes al-Jabha a-Shamiya and Ahrar a-Sham announced its capture of Handarat village, a settlement 3.5km north of Aleppo, in a video statement uploaded to its official YouTube account on Tuesday.
“Since this morning we’ve been combing the last buildings held by regime forces,” said Abu Amar A-Shami, head of the Liwa Filq a-Sham media office, to Sky News on Monday. Rebel forces have now encircled regime forces at the villages of Bashkuy and Sifat, just north of Handarat, he added, a claim that could not be independently verified.
The regime considers Handarat essential to its effort to cut the last opposition supply line into north Aleppo, which lies less than 2km to the east of the village, reported the pro-regime satellite channel Al-Mayadeen News on Tuesday.
Ahrar a-Sham captures Handarat’s main water tower. Photo courtesy ofIslamic Front.
Battles in Suwayda threaten rebel movement
The regime captured a plot of land in northwest Suwayda province Tuesday in an ongoing battle to disrupt rebel movements across the Suwayda desert and cut off supply lines from the eastern Jordanian border running into eastern Daraa, reported pro-regime El-Nashra news.
The regime claims “that the Islamic State is located in northeastern Suwayda, in order to scare the locals on one hand, and put pressure on [the rebels of] East Ghouta from another,” a pro-opposition citizen journalist from Suwayda city who runs the Ahrar Suwayda Facebook page told Syria Direct Wednesday.
The journalist confirmed Syrian army movements in the area but could not say whether government forces had taken control of Rasm Martaa al-Faras.
“Army units imposed full control yesterday morning over Rasm Martaa al-Faras in northeast Suwayda after taking out a number of terrorists and destroying their criminal implements,” a military source was quoted by state-run agency SANA as saying.