Syrian army forces supported by Iranian-backed militias pushed deeper into the last rebel-held enclave near a strategic border area with Israel and Lebanon in a new expansion of Tehran’s influence in the war-torn country.
The army and the Shi’ite forces advanced east and south of the Sunni-rebel held bastion of Beit Jin backed by some of the heaviest aerial bombing and heavy artillery shelling since a major assault began over two months ago to seize the area, rebels said.
The Syrian army said it had encircled the village of Mughr al Meer at the foothills of Mount Hermon as troops moved towards Beit Jin amid fierce clashes.
The enclave is the last rebel bastion left in the south west of Damascus known as the Western Ghouta that had since last year fallen under government control after months of heavy bombing on civilian areas and years of siege tactics that forced rebels to surrender.
A western intelligence source confirmed rebel reports that Iranian-backed militias including the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group were playing a major role in the ongoing battles.
“The Iranian backed militias are trying to consolidate their sphere of influence all the way from southwest of Damascus to the Israeli border,” said Suhaib al Ruhail, an official from the Liwa al Furqan rebel group that operates in the area.
Worried by Iran’s expanding influence in Syria after the defeat of ISIS, Israel has in the last few weeks stepped up its strikes against Iranian targets inside Syria.
Early this month an Israeli strike on a base near Kiswah, south of Damascus was widely believed to be an Iranian military compound.
In December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s policy that it would not allow Iranian military entrenchment in Syria in a speech the Saban Forum in Washington, a day before Israel allegedly attacked an Iranian base in Syria.
“We will not allow a regime hell-bent on the annihilation of the Jewish state to acquire nuclear weapons. We will not allow that regime to entrench itself militarily in Syria as it seeks to do for the expressed purpose of eradicating our state,” Netanyahu said in English in the pre-taped speech.