Assad forces make new gains

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad captured a Damascus suburb and made advances on an Islamist-held northern village in Aleppo

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces captured the southern Damascus suburb of Hujaira and advanced on an Islamist-held northern village in Aleppo on Wednesday.

This is in part of a broader advance that has brought President Assad major gains south of the capital before proposed international peace talks to end the 32-month conflict.

Both Syrian state television and al-Manar, the channel of the Lebanese group Hezbollah whose fighters helped drive rebels out Hujaira, broadcast live footage showing soldiers in control of otherwise empty streets flanked by shelled buildings and ruins, Reuters reported.

“Southern districts [in Damascus] that have been under rebel control for more than a year are falling one by one,” Reuters quoted Damascus-based activist Rami al-Sayyed as saying.

Syrian forces advance in Aleppo

Meanwhile, forces loyal to President Assad has also advanced on the Islamist-held northern village of Tal Hassel on Wednesday, Agence France-Presse reported

A security official confirmed to AFP that the army was advancing at Tal Hassel, and said it was “expanding operations to recover regions captured by terrorists.”

“Residents are being very cooperative with the Syrian army, because they were treated very badly by the terrorists.”

Syrian forces making advances in Tal Hassel has prompted jihadist rebels in nearby Aleppo to call for mass mobilization to counter the offensive.

Fighting raged at Tal Hassel, some 12 kilometers (seven miles) from Aleppo, the country’s pre-war commercial hub, where the regime and rebels have been locked in a bloody standoff for more than a year.

Since September’s deal between the United States and Russia to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons averted the threat of Western attack, Assad’s forces have also consolidated control around other cities along Syria’s north-south highway such as Deraa and Homs.

Large, mostly rural and desert, regions remain under the control of rebel brigades, mainly in the eastern Syria and in the countryside bordering Turkey.

“In the last few months Assad has been increasingly leaving the fighting in the urban areas, especially Damascus and its environs, to his Shi'ite allies,” a Middle East security official told Reuters.

“The capture of Hujaira is typical. Syrian army tanks and artillery level the area. The Iraqis and Hezbollah advance and do the fighting. Assad’s troops then enter the area and pose for cameras,” he added.

Assad’s gains put him in an increasingly secure position ahead of proposed - but long delayed - peace talks in Geneva aimed at finding a political solution to the civil war. Syrian authorities have scoffed at suggestions he should hand power to a transitional government.

An estimated 120,000 people have been killed and millions displaced by Syria’s civil war, which erupted after a fierce government crackdown on pro-democracy protests first held in March 2011.

(With Reuters and AFP)