Syrian forces, advancing on a key strategic rebel-held territory close to the border with Israel and Lebanon, are being assisted by Iran-backed militias including Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.
The Lebanese group, which has sworn to destroy Israel, is among those taking part in the fierce battles for control of Sunni-held Beit Jinn, Reuters reported Monday
Suhaib al Ruhail, an official from the Liwa al Furqan rebel group operating in the area, told Reuters that “the Iran-backed militias are trying to consolidate their sphere of influence all the way from southwest of Damascus to the Israeli border.”
Reuters said a Western intelligence source confirmed the report.
Rebels groups said there have been heavy bombardments and artillery fire on their positions and the Syrian army claimed it has encircled Mughr al Meer at the foot of Mount Hermon, the elevated area that commands the Golan Heights.
The Beit Jinn area is the last significant rebel-held enclave southwest of Damascus.
Thousands of Shite fighters are up against several hundred rebels including those of the Free Syrian Army, a loosely affiliated group of militias, some of which have been received military aid and weapons from Western countries, including the US.
Rebels still hold other areas in central and southern Quneitra on Golan Heights, the report said.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media reported that Syrian troops and their allies on Monday captured three new areas from the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee. It added troops were now about 500 meters (yards) from the shrine of Sheikh Abdullah that is sacred to the country’s Druze community.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Right said the fighters were besieged in Beit Jinn and nearby areas after a 10-day intense offensive. It added that negotiations were underway to evacuate insurgents to the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib.
Israel, concerned that Iran will increase its reach into Syria via its militias and in particular powerful Hezbollah, has taken diplomatic and, reportedly, military action. Jerusalem fears that the Iranian presence in that area would serve as a springboard for terrorist groups to attack Israel in the future.
In September a Hezbollah commander said the group has 10,000 fighters in southern Syria ready to confront Israel. Israel last fought a full-scale war with Hezbollah in 2006’s Second Lebanon War, and tensions have remained high even as the northern border has been relatively quiet.
Led by Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah is believed to have an arsenal of between 100,000 and 150,000 short-, medium- and long-range missiles and a fighting force of some 50,000 soldiers, including reservists.
It is seen by the IDF as its main threat, representing the standard by which the Israeli army measures its preparedness.
When Russia and Washington agreed last July that southwest Syria be a deescalation zone, Israel lobbied both countries for any future ceasefire agreement in the region to include a stipulation that Iran and its forces be kept back from the Israeli border, but with limited success.
In November, an Israeli official said that under a deal hammered out between the US, Russia, and Jordan, militias associated with Iran would be allowed to maintain positions as little as five to seven kilometers (3.1-4.3 miles) from the border in some areas, Reuters reported at the time.
At the beginning of December, Arab media attributed an airstrike near Damascus to Israel, with some reports saying the target was a military base that Iran is building in the area, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Israeli border.
The alleged Israeli attack came three weeks after the BBC reported that Iran was building a permanent military base in Syria just south of Damascus. The British broadcaster commissioned a series of satellite pictures that showed widespread construction at the site.
Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.