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Hezbollah said pulling back from Syria fighting

As Iran and Russia step up direct support, group says it will shift to defensive stance after helping Assad capture border town

Hezbollah fighters carry the coffins of comrades who were killed in battles in Syria during their funeral on September 21, 2015 in the town of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. (AFP/STR)
Hezbollah fighters carry the coffins of comrades who were killed in battles in Syria during their funeral on September 21, 2015 in the town of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. (AFP/STR)

Hezbollah militants fighting alongside Syrian troops say they plan to shift to a defensive posture after helping President Bashar Assad win back a key border town, Lebanese media reported Tuesday.

Officials from the Lebanon-based Islamist organization informed Damascus that they would no longer help Assad with offensives against rebel groups, according to the Beirut-based Daily Star.

The move comes as both Russia and Iran appear to be increasing direct military support for the Assad regime, four and a half years into a bloody civil war.

The Iran-backed Shi’ite militia has suffered heavy casualties fighting in Syria since entering the war, with some estimating the Lebanese group has lost over 1,000 fighters.

Israel fought a punishing month-long war against Hezbollah in 2006, but the group has kept to fiery rhetoric and low level attacks on Israel since then, with analysts saying the group has been too bogged down in Syria to open a front against the Jewish state.

The group said it would pull back after capturing the town Zabadani, the last rebel-held outpost in the mountainous border region west of Damascus, where much of Hezbollah’s fighting has been concentrated.

A ceasefire in Zabadani between the Syrian regime and rebel forces has held since Sunday.

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A member of the Zabadani town council, which has been involved in the talks, confirmed that negotiators had set no end date.

Pro-government forces launched an offensive to try to recapture Zabadani in July, prompting a rebel alliance, including Sunni Muslim extremists from al-Qaeda, to besiege the Idlib villages of Fuaa and Kafraya, whose residents are Shiites.

A resident of the town of Madaya, adjacent to Zabadani, told AFP the situation there was “completely calm.”

A picture taken on August 10, 2015, shows smoke billowing following a reported attack on a tunnel used by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in the village of Foua, in the northwestern province of Idlib. (AFP PHOTO/OMAR HAJ KADOUR)
A picture taken on August 10, 2015, shows smoke billowing following a reported attack on a tunnel used by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in the village of Foua, in the northwestern province of Idlib. (AFP PHOTO/OMAR HAJ KADOUR)

Assad has recently been bolstered by a Russian military buildup, which has allowed Syrian forces to step up attacks against Islamic State fighters and rebel groups.

At least 38 Islamic State group fighters were killed in airstrikes by the Damascus regime against three jihadist-held towns in central Syria, a monitoring group said Tuesday.

Monday’s strikes hit Palmyra and two other towns in the Homs province, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The Syrian air force has been increasing its strikes against IS in recent days as it received reinforcements from Russia, he said.

“The number of raids is growing and the strikes are more precise after the Syrian air force received arms and more efficient planes from Moscow,” said Abdel Rahman, whose group relies on broad network of civilian, military and medical sources inside Syria.

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Assad of helping Hezbollah and Iran create a base in the Syrian Golan to attack Israel from, during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Aside from Russia, Iran has also stepped up direct support for Assad in recent months.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday that Iranian troops were willing to help both Iraq and Syria in the struggle against the Islamic State group.

If the “terrorists begin to expand in the region, the only hope will be Iran’s army and the Revolutionary Guards,” he said at an annual parade in Tehran.

He added that Mideast nations should not put too much faith in “Western powers as their defenders.”

AP and AFP contributed to this report.

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