The Syrian civil war edged closer to Syria’s border with Israel Thursday as rebel fighters captured one village and parts of others on the Golan Heights. The battles and rebel victories occurred along the 1974 ceasefire line patrolled by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which was created after the Yom Kippur war.
As President Barack Obama met in Jerusalem with Israeli leaders, the Ali bin Abi Taleb battalion, Saraya al-Izz battalion, and the al-Haq company engaged and apparently defeated forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad. The Syrian rebel units are being referred to as the “Quneitra Liberation Collective” — named after the now-abandoned Golan Heights city that fell to Israel in 1967.
Two videos updated Thursday to YouTube claimed to show members of the Quneitra Liberation Collective during and after battle, celebrating with cheers after taking the town of Khan Arnabeh. Though the combatants do not display flags or other symbols common to Islamist and al-Qaeda-linked groups [which are also fighting in Syria], some of the men shown sport beards and head coverings typical to Islamic groups.
In one video a fighter claims to have destroyed three Russian-made T-72 tanks belonging to Assad’s army and to have killed a number of Assad soldiers.
Both a label on the YouTube video pages and a narrator corroborate the location of the fighting and rebel victory as along the Golan Heights.
One of the worst-case scenarios for Syria’s two-year-old civil war is that it could draw in neighboring countries such as Israel or Lebanon. Israel has said its policy is not to get involved in the Syrian civil war, but it has retaliated for sporadic Syrian fire that spilled into Israeli communities on the Golan Heights.
The battles near the town of Quneitra in southwest Syria sent many residents fleeing, including dozens who crossed into neighboring Lebanon. The fighting in the sensitive area began Wednesday near the ceasefire line between Syrian and Israeli troops.
Syrian rebels are made of dozens of groups including the powerful, al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which the Obama administration labels a terrorist organization. Syrian TV said Thursday that Syrian forces “restored peace” to Khan Arnabeh and the Tilal al-Ahmar villages in Quneitra province “after eradicating large numbers of Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists,” the term used by the regime to refer to the rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad.
The Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said earlier that rebels had seized control of Khan Arnabeh and parts of villages a few kilometers (miles) from the ceasefire line with Israel after fierce fighting with regime forces.