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Syrian rebels overrun al-Mastouma military camp

Hizballah's involvement in Syria has proved to be vital for Assad survival (Getty)

Date of publication: 20 May, 2015

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Hizballah secures Qalamoun mountains with Iran reiterating its support for the Syrian regime, while rebels overrun al-Mastouma military camp, strangling regime forces in Idlib's Ariha city.

The Islamic State group, IS, has exploited the battle in Qalamoun to advance in rebel-held areas on the border with Lebanon.

As Syrian rebels coalition (Jaysh al-Fateh) attempted to preempt a battle against Hizballah in Qalamoun, IS blocked the rebels' supply lines in the north and attacked their positions.

From the west of Qalamoun (Lebanese borders), rebels have been fighting with Hizballah. From the east, regime forces tightened the grip, while IS blocked the northern routes.

Consequently, al-Nusra and other rebel groups had to fight a guerrilla war across Qalamoun region while ensuring that the narrow routes that connect them with other rebel-held towns in Flayta and al-Jarajeer remain under their control.

The Qalamoun is a mountainous region that straddles the Syria-Lebanon border. The battle there is said to be geostrategic and politically pivotal for Assad to close rebel supply lines from Lebanon and regain momentum after significant losses elsewhere.

Hizballah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said his party had expelled militants from Qalamoun, but acknowledged the outstanding security concerns.

In a televised speech, Nasrallah said the battle in the mountainous area was "ongoing in terms of time and place," but that Hizballah had dealt "resounding defeats" to rebels there. Hizballah and the Syrian regime have "kicked out the armed groups from the battlefield, retaking control of 300 kilometres of territory across the borders," Nasrallah said.

To confirm this, Hizballah fighters guided media reporters around Qalamoun earlier this week, presenting spoils of war and explaining the nature of the battle.

Iran steps up support

After the announcement, foreign affairs adviser to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, arrived in Beirut on Monday.

The senior Iranian official said Tehran was proud of its key ally Hizballah, praising the "victories". "We are filled with pride and appreciation when we see that in recent days, the valiant Lebanese resistance (Hizballah) has achieved great progress and excellent victories alongside the brave Syrian army," he said after meeting Lebanon's parliamentary speaker.

Commenting on the significance of Qalamoun, Velayati added that "we believe this will strengthen the axis of resistance, not just in Syria and Lebanon, but in the whole region".

After Beirut, the Iranian official met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Tuesday, according to Syrian state TV. Velayati's visit to Damascus is the third visit of senior Iranian official to Damascus in less than a week.

On Monday Rustom Qasemi, head of Iranian agency tasked with developing bilateral economic relations, met with Assad and said Tehran wanted to shore up Syria economically.

Also, head of Iran's parliamentary national security and foreign policy committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, reiterated Iranian support for Syria's government in another visit last week.

Rebels compensate Qalamoun in al-Mastouma

Despite Qalamoun setbacks, rebels continue to overrun regime pockets across Idlib.

After taking Idlib city, Jaysh el-Fateh capture the foritified regime military camp of al-Mastouma, north of Idlib. The rebels launched an organised attack on al-Mastouma camp Tuesday from three axes.

Syrian regime tanks were seen withdrawing from the camp towards Ariha by the afternoon as al-Nusra Front launched several suicide attacks on its entrance.

Extending over an area of two square kilometers, al-Mastouma camp has been turned into a major military centre by the regime, linking Latakia and Idlib. The camp is used to attack rebel-held areas in Idlib, particularly Neirab, Sarmeen, and Qaminas. It hosts 600 soldiers, over 30 tanks and other weapons.

After the fall of al-Mastouma, the regime is only left with the military airport (Abu al-Duhour), Ariha city and two other villages in Idlib province. Jaysh al-Fateh is capitalising on the victory in al-Mastouma to take Ariha. The last regime-held city in Idlib connects the coastal city of Latakia to Idlib and Hama. A rebel victory in Ariha will tighten the grip on Assad in his coastal stronghold, Latakia.

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