BEIRUT — Rebels on the outskirts of the Syrian capital launched an offensive over the weekend that apparently succeeded in breaking the government siege of several contested villages in a long battle that apparently involved the Lebanese Muslim Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Three rebel commanders confirmed to McClatchy on Monday that the offensive was ongoing, but each refused to provide details, saying that the newly dominant faction that controls rebel forces around Damascus had put a news blackout in place.
Abu Yaser, a spokesman for Jaysh al Islam, a coalition of Islamist rebel groups, said details of the fight would be made public when the operation was completed.
Photos posted on Facebook and Twitter showed rebels celebrating what appeared to be a series of bloody victories over Hezbollah fighters who’d been supporting the Syrian army in the area. Rebels appeared to be holding prisoners, and some of the photos depicted apparent executions.
Word of the fighting came the same day that the United Nations announced that the United States and Russia had agreed to Jan. 22 as the date for the so-called Geneva 2 peace talks, intended to find a political solution to the civil war.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the date in New York. If the talks take place as planned, it will be the first meeting between representatives of President Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition since the civil war broke out in 2011.
“At long last and for the first time, the Syrian government and opposition will meet at the negotiation table rather than the battlefield,” Ban said.
It was still unclear who’d be attending the conference, which was originally called for in the so-called Geneva Communique agreed to by the United States, Russia and several other countries in June 2012. Assad has said he’ll send a representative, but it’s been unclear which rebel factions will appear and whether countries such as Saudi Arabia, which supports the rebels, and Iran, which supports Assad, will be invited.
“We are still discussing the complete list of participants, and we will be meeting again on Dec. 20 for another trilateral, maybe the last one before the conference,” Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.’s special envoy to Syria, said in Geneva, referring to a meeting of representatives from the United States, Russia and the U.N. “We are in touch both with government and the opposition. We are asking them to name their delegations as early as possible, hopefully before the end of the year.”
He ducked questions on whether Iran would be invited, noting only that Ban and the head of the Arab League have said they’d favor its participation.
The announcement of the date for the talks and the rebel offensive probably were coincidental, but the timing underscored a key rebel concern: that peace talks would begin while their campaign to oust Assad appeared to be flagging.
In recent months, the Syrian army, with the help of Iranian advisers and fighters from Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has successfully pressed to retake areas around Damascus that had been under rebel control. Ghouta and the adjacent suburbs of Damascus have been under heavy government siege and bombardment for almost a year as pro-Assad troops sought to weaken rebel forces that occupied the area. Little in the way of food or medical supplies has arrived in the besieged area.
“The battle is ongoing, and the fighting brigades were able to liberate townships that were being controlled by the regime army,” said a rebel activist, who asked that his name not be used so as not to offend the rebel units that insist on a news blackout. He identified the rebel units participating in the fighting as Jaysh al Islam and the Islamic Union of Ajnad al Sham and Ahrar al Sham, two conservative Islamist groups.
“Yesterday, all of al Bahariyah was liberated,” he said, referring to a town east of Damascus that’s been contested for months. He said rebels also had taken the towns of Deir Salman and al Qisa, which had been in rebels hands at the beginning of the year but fell to the army over the summer.
Rebel video showed dozens of bodies of what the insurgents claimed were Hezbollah fighters. Several showed prisoners whom the rebels identified as Lebanese.
A Hezbollah commander in Beirut said he was aware of at least 21 casualties from the weekend fighting and that the Shiite community of southern Lebanon was bracing for high casualty figures.
“I have a list of 21 names of our martyrs from this weekend, but there will be more,” he said. “It could become at least 40 in the next few hours.”
Residents of Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs said there were signs that some bodies had been returned from the battlefield just a few hours away and that families with sons in Syria were expected to hear of more casualties.
The Hezbollah commander described a murky ongoing situation in Ghouta and around a strategic highway interchange that links the capital to the mostly rebel-held city of Aleppo to the north.
“Yesterday our units came under a human wave attack by hundreds of terrorists and rebel fighters,” said the commander, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to discuss Hezbollah operations with reporters. “They took several villages and took several Hezbollah positions.”
When he was asked whether the Hezbollah units would be reinforced, the commander said elite units from Hezbollah were already being sent to the battle.
“It’s not over. We will retake those positions,” he said.
One resident said a mass mobilization of these units was readily apparent in the tight-knit community.
“Everyone’s phones are ringing and buses full of special forces are leaving” the neighborhood, the resident said. The resident asked not to be identified for security reasons.
McClatchy special correspondent John Zarocostas contributed to this report from Geneva.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent; Twitter: @mitchprothero