The Syrian army has secured a mountain range near Damascus in an operation against insurgents, Syrian state television said on Tuesday, tightening control over an area important to President Bashar al-Assad after the state lost a city in the northwest.
The army launched a campaign last week to reclaim the Zabadani region, 50 km northwest of Damascus.
It is part of an area near the border with Lebanon where the army has often clashed with insurgents including al Qaeda’s Nusra Front.
The area is important because of its proximity to the capital and its position on the border.
“Units of the army are in full control of the western mountain range of Zabadani,” state television said in a news flash quoting a military source. It said “a number of terrorists” had been killed.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were ongoing clashes between Islamist groups and government forces backed by allied fighters in the mountain area and that there were reports the military had sent reinforcements.
The Zabadani advance come days after Nusra Front and allied insurgents seized the city of Idlib in the northwestern corner of Syria near the border with Turkey, the second time Damascus has lost control of a provincial capital in the war.
The Syrian military and allied fighters have concentrated their forces in western Syria, including the Mediterranean coast. The government has lost control over wide areas of the north and east to insurgent groups including Islamic State.
A Syrian military source on Monday accused Turkey of helping the insurgent groups that seized Idlib on Saturday. Turkey is one of the regional states most hostile to Assad, together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. All have backed the insurgency.
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday reiterated its view that a solution to the Syria crisis depended on levelling the battlefield “to force the butcher of Damascus to respond to the political solution” - a reference to Assad.
The comments by Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal were published on the official Twitter feed of the Saudi Shura Council.
The Syrian state remains the single most powerful player in the conflict thanks to its air force and steadfast support from its ally Iran.
Mainstream rebels in southern Syria say they have received extra military support from foreign states opposed to Assad to help them fend off an offensive by the army and Hezbollah to reclaim the border area near Israel and Jordan.
The fighting near the Lebanese border also has repercussions for Lebanon’s security. Violence from Syria’s four-year war has regularly tipped over into its smaller neighbour, and fighters from the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite Islamist group Hezbollah have been fighting on Assad’s side.