Syrian rebels launch offensive in the south

Rebels said they attacked an important military base and checkpoints in the city of Deraa.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: AFP

AMMAN - Syrian rebels said they attacked an important military base in the south and checkpoints in the city of Deraa on Thursday, trying to regain ground lost to President Bashar al-Assad's forces near the Jordanian border.

The rebels were thrown onto the defensive last week when Assad's troops retook the town of Khirbet Ghazaleh on the main north-south highway between Damascus and Jordan.

They said hundreds of fighters with rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns were brought in on Thursday to lay siege to the fortress-like headquarters of the Syrian army's 52nd Mechanised Brigade, one of the largest bases in Deraa province.

The base, almost 80 km (50 miles) south of Damascus, lies at the heart of a heavily fortified zone which has traditionally formed a southern line of defence protecting the capital.

Since the two-year revolt against Assad erupted the garrison has been reinforced by artillery and tanks moved from smaller outposts overrun by rebels. Rebels and regional military experts say it has been used to pound rebel-held villages and towns along the frontier with Jordan in recent months.

"This battle has been a response to the overrunning of Khirbet Ghazaleh by regime forces, to open a new front and prevent any further advances," Faeq Aboud, a spokesman for the Moatasem B'Allah Battalion, part of the Faluja Hauran brigade, a rebel group participating in the assault, told Reuters.

The Hauran Plain, which extends to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, is the birthplace of the revolt against four decades of family rule by Assad and his late father which erupted in the city of Deraa in March 2011.

The fortified base of the 52nd Mechanised Brigade, on the outskirts of the town of Herak, has defied countless attempts to overrun it but rebels said Thursday's attack was the biggest so far.

"When we widen the fight against them we weaken the ability of the regime forces," said Abu Thaer, a rebel fighter from the Liwa al-Tawheed brigade. He said two major checkpoints in the old quarter of the city of Deraa were also attacked on Thursday after a month-long lull.

The rebels hold large areas in the north and east of the country but Assad's forces have waged a series of attacks in eastern Damascus, Homs and in Deraa, trying to consolidate control in the heartlands of Assad's power.