Syria claims to capture key hilltop position overlooking Golan Heights

But monitor group says regime forces were forced to retreat from Tel Harra after jihadist ambush left 12 soldiers dead

A picture taken on July 16, 2018 shows a smoke plume rising along the horizon near the Syrian city of al-Harra in Daraa province from reported Syrian and Russian air strikes. (AFP Photo/Moaz Al-Asaad)
A picture taken on July 16, 2018 shows a smoke plume rising along the horizon near the Syrian city of al-Harra in Daraa province from reported Syrian and Russian air strikes. (AFP Photo/Moaz Al-Asaad)

BEIRUT — Syrian rebels and government forces clashed over a reconnaissance point near the frontier with Israel, a monitoring group said Monday, as the government pressed forward with military operations in the country’s southwest.

Government forces bombed villages and rebel positions around Tel al-Haara, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war through a network of on-the-ground activists.

Syrian state media said government forces seized the hill, but the Observatory said an al-Qaeda linked faction fighting alongside rebels ambushed troops there, forcing them to retreat. Twelve of the government forces were killed, said the Observatory.

Tel al-Haara overlooks the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, and was the site of a Syrian reconnaissance base until opposition forces seized it in 2014 in the ongoing civil war.

Since June 19, government forces have seized towns and villages from rebels in southwest Syria, at the borders with Israel and Jordan, and recaptured the city of Daraa, the birthplace of the 2011 revolt against President Bashar Assad.

The government now controls the main border crossing between Damascus and Amman, a key artery for Syrian exports to Jordan and the oil-rich Gulf states farther south. Jordan closed the crossing in 2015 when it was seized by rebels.

Both Israel and Jordan have signaled their consent to the campaign, though Israel has said it will not accept the presence of Iranian forces or proxy forces along its frontier. Assad has depended on support from Iran and its Lebanese proxy, the terrorist group Hezbollah, to fight his war on local opposition forces and an Islamic State group insurgency that proliferated through the country mid-decade.

On Monday, government forces captured the towns of Zameen, Salween, and al-Teiha, in Daraa province, according to SANA and the Observatory. It also shelled and bombed villages in the neighboring, rebel-held Quneitra province.

A picture taken on July 16, 2018 from the Israeli Golan Heights hows Syrian rebel fighters alongside a tank and an artillery gun amassing near the border in Syria’s southeastern Quneitra province, as government forces press their assault on the area. (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)

Meanwhile, Turkish officials said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday spoke with US President Donald Trump by phone about an action plan for Manbij, a town in north Syria that has been held by US-supported local Syrian forces that Turkey says are terrorists.

Turkey has objected to the presence of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units — known as the YPG — along its frontier. It says the YPG are an extension of a Kurdish separatist movement inside its own borders.

Turkey and the US announced last month they had reached an agreement for the YPG to pull its fighters out of Manbij. On Sunday, the Manbij Military Council, which administers the town, said the YPG units once stationed there had completed their withdrawal. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry on Monday called those reports “exaggerated” and said they didn’t “reflect the truth.”

Turkish and American forces are conducting separate patrols in north Syria after differences over their outlooks for north Syria strained ties between the two NATO states. Turkey deployed troops in Syria in 2016 and now controls a swathe of territory inside the country that abuts Manbij.

Trump is meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday. The two leaders are expected to discuss Syria.

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