Syrian rebels in strategic battle for south

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BEIRUT -- Capitalizing on a recent influx of weapons, Syrian rebels are waging a strategic battle for the southern part of the country and seeking to secure a corridor from the Jordanian border to Damascus in preparation for an eventual assault on the capital.

On Friday, the rebels celebrated their latest victory: They seized full control of Dael, a key town along a main highway, after forces of President Bashar Assad's regime all but withdrew from the area.

"God is great! We are coming, Bashar!" armed fighters cried overnight Thursday after they captured the last of the military checkpoints in the town where Mr. Assad's forces had been holed up, according to amateur video posted online.

Dael is one of the bigger towns in the southern Daraa province, where the uprising against Mr. Assad began in March 2011, when security forces arrested high school students who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall.

Activists say it was in Dael that the first statue of Mr. Assad's father and predecessor, the late President Hafez Assad, was first toppled shortly after the protests broke out.

The regime responded with a ferocious military crackdown in the area. For a long time, it succeeded in muting the revolt there while government troops turned their attention to defending Syria's northern and eastern regions against rebel advances as the uprising turned into a civil war in which an estimated 70,000 people have been killed.

But in dusty agricultural towns and villages across the province, the rebels have recently gone on the offensive, expanding their presence with a renewed sense of purpose. The rebel fighters include Islamic militants.

The strategic region -- known as the Houran plains, which stretch from the outskirts of the capital south into Jordan -- is seen as a crucial gateway to the ultimate prize of Damascus.

The series of rebel gains coincided with what regional officials and military experts say is a sharp increase in weapons shipments to opposition fighters by Arab governments, in coordination with the U.S., in the hopes of readying a push into Damascus.

Officials and Western military experts have told the Associated Press that Jordan has opened up as a new route for the weapons late last year. Two military analysts who closely follow the traffic said the weapons include more powerful, Croatian-made anti-tank guns and rockets, which the rebels have not had before.

Syrian activist Maher Jamous, who is from Dael but lives in the United Arab Emirates, said that despite the steady advances and the latest rebel victory in Dael, the regime still maintains a strong presence in the strategic province that leads to the capital.

The regime is known to have posted elite troops in Daraa province, which separates Damascus from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights that the Jewish state captured in 1967 and annexed in 1981.

The province was once considered one of the most loyal regime strongholds. Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad, Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi and several others high ranking officials are from Daraa.

world


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