Fresh Offensive, Hezbollah Troops Fast Approaching Israeli Border From Syrian Side

Fighting alongside Hezbollah, new Syrian offensive nears Israeli border.

ByABC News
February 12, 2015, 2:05 PM
Fighters loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad ride on military vehicles and tanks after regaining control of Deir al-Adas, a town south of Damascus, on Feb. 10, 2015.
Fighters loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad ride on military vehicles and tanks after regaining control of Deir al-Adas, a town south of Damascus, on Feb. 10, 2015.

JERUSALEM — -- Bolstered by the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its patrons in Tehran, the Syrian Army continued its rapid advance into southern Syria today, inching closer to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

"Regime troops and their Hezbollah-led allies are advancing in the area linking Daraa, Quneitra and Damascus provinces," close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Beginning earlier this week, the Syrian government confirmed they launched a “broad operation” to recapture strategic hilltops and key swaths of territory lost last year to rebel groups including the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra Front.

A field commander told Syrian State TV: "The military operation launched by the Syrian army in the south continues under the leadership of Syrian President Bashar Assad and in cooperation with the axis of resistance -- Hezbollah and Iran," according to the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Alawsat newspaper.

Amin Hatit, a military strategist close to Hezbollah, added that "it appears that the initial results surpass all expectations. ... Within 48 hours, goals were achieved for which ten days were allocated," according to Asharq Alawsat.

Syrian State television reported the offensive swiftly gained control of the town of Deir al-Adas and the village of Deir Maker and Tal al-Arous and Tal al-Sarjeh.

But rebels told ABC News the battles are ongoing, and ABC News was unable to independently confirm the captured towns.

"The Free Syrian Army is still making notable advances across the border with Jordan into Southern Syria. The battle for Deir Addas is not over. We have reports of over 30 Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah and Afghan Shia foreign fighters captured by rebels in the Southern front this week," Oubai Shahbandar, former Senior Advisor to the Syrian National Coalition told ABC News.

"The Iranian revolutionary guards have taken operational control of Assad’s forces south of Damascus because they have little trust in the competency of what’s left of Assad’s military in the southern front following a string of defeats since January," Shahbandar explained to ABC News.

This week's southern offensive comes on the heels of a deadly week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says air strikes to the south and east of the capital have killed nearly 200 people in the last ten days alone.

But by this afternoon, the Observatory said military operations were more "limited” than earlier this week due to bad weather.

Activists told the Associated Press that the pace had slowed due to the snowstorm hitting the higher elevations.

The pressure on Israel’s northern border comes just two weeks after a Hezbollah strike on an Israeli convoy in the Shebaa Farms area, killing two soldiers and wounding at least seven others. The strike was in retaliation for a presumed Israeli attack on a Hezbollah convoy in Quneitra, Syria, near the border last month. The strike, which Israel never officially claimed, killed an Iranian general and six Hezbollah commanders, including Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of one of Hezbollah's most prominent military commanders believed to have been assassinated by Israel. Neither Hezbollah nor Israel escalated the border fire, but analysts say renewed fighting near the border heightens the risk of opening a broader confrontation.

"The decision to prevent southern Syria from falling into the hands of Israel's collaborators is more strategic than any other, and is equally as important as the decision to prevent Damascus from falling to these same collaborators,” said Ibrahim al-Amin, editor of the pro-Hezbollah daily Al Akhbar, according to Israel’s Ynet.

According to the Observatory, the Lebanese Shii’ite militant group is currently leading the charge in southern Syria and has deployed at least 5,000 fighters to serve alongside Syrian government forces. Peter Lerner, spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces puts that number somewhere between “3,000 to 5,000.”

The new offensive “should not be a surprise," Lerner told ABC News, “as Hezbollah are an integral component of the regime’s war effort.”

Avi Issacharoff, the Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, said it’s premature to game out an Israeli response. “It’s early to evaluate the offensive in the Golan heights, Hezbollah's attempts to take the Golan heights is aimed at creating one front from South Lebanon to the Golan heights in Syria - so the next war will be fought on two fronts and not one as it used to be.”

Issacharoff added: “This is a strategic offensive, it will take a week to understand if Hezbollah and the Syrian army will be successful or not in driving the rebels away from near the Israeli borders.”

Israel’s next move could depend on the success of this week’s operation, but for now, Lerner says “we maintain extensive forces both offensive and defensive capabilities” and “continue to assess the situation closely.”

Rym Momtaz contributed reporting from New York. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.