Syria: Rebels in Crisis as Regime Forces Continue to Make Gains

Capitalizing on rebel infighting, Syrian gov't forces, backed by Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon, retake key positions.

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Ari Soffer,

Syrian rebels battle regime troops in Aleppo
Syrian rebels battle regime troops in Aleppo

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have wrested control of a flashpoint suburb of the capital Damascus, continuing a string of recent gains by regime forces against rebels.

Hejeira's fall came shortly after regime forces captured the nearby town of Sabina, cornering the already embattled rebel battalions who had been holding out in Hejeira for months, amid heavy bombardment by the Syrian military.

Al Mayadeen TV broadcast what it said were live images from Hejeira, offering a glimpse of the destruction and desolation wrought by more than two years of armed conflict, including homes and shops reduced to rubble.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that Assad's forces had taken most of Hejeira, but said that a few pockets of resistance still remained. Syrian state media service SANA appeared to confirm this, reporting that the Syrian army continued to battle rebels on the outskirts.

The Observatory also cited clashes between pro-regime forces and rebels elsewhere in Damascus. It said three people were killed when mortar shells were fired into the government-held neighborhoods of Bab Touma and Zablatani.

SANA said that two people were killed and 20 injured in the attack on predominantly Christian Bab Touma.

Following considerable losses, regime forces have also launched successful counterattacks in Syria's contested second city of Aleppo, capitalizing on rebel infighting to retake a military base near the city's international airport - known as "Base 80" - and seizing control of two towns along a key highway.  

Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said that regime forces were now focusing their efforts on the town of Tel Hasel, which is the sole remaining rebel outpost along the highway, lying southeast of Aleppo airport.

He said army helicopters were using explosive barrels in a bid to flush out rebels there.

Rebel infighting takes its toll

Regime advances in both Damascus and Aleppo are at least partially due to bloody infighting within the Syrian rebel movement, which has begun to take its toll in recent months. This despite several successful initiatives to unite some of the hundreds of rebel factions scattered throughout the country under various umbrellas - most notably with the recent formation of the formidable Army of Islam.

In the battle for Aleppo, rebel infighting had left some battalions fighting on 2 separate fronts, with internecine clashes continuing even as government forces moved in on rebel positions.

In response to the escalating losses, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) - an Al Qaeda affiliate - has issued a "call to arms", urging "all brigades and Muslims to arms to face off against the enemy which is attacking Islamic territory", according to the Observatory.

It follows calls on Monday by a number of other rebel brigades in Aleppo, including Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and Liwa al-Tawhid, for rebel groups to work together to "face up to regime attacks", according to the BBC.

That call to arms cited the involvement of foreign Shia militias, including Hezbollah, in the government offensive, which they described as a "fierce offensive to reoccupy Aleppo".

In the north, Al Qaeda-linked rebels have also seen their forces routed by Kurdish militants, who oppose both Syrian government and Arab opposition rule.

Yesterday, the The People's Council of Western Kurdistan (PYD) declared an autonomous Kurdish region in the areas liberated by its forces.