PHOTO: Captured Syrian regime forces near Rityan, north of Aleppo



How Demonstrators Sabotaged State TV’s PR “Reconciliation” Video in Damascus Suburb

Rebels are claiming a victory over the 48-hour regime counter-offensive north of Aleppo in northwest Syria.

Syrian forces — including Hezbollah, Iranian, and Afghan fighters — launched a surprise attack on three villages early Tuesday. They hoped to relieve the besieged enclaves of Nubl and al-Zahraa and to cut rebel supply lines from the Turkish border. Regime troops also attacked rebels, mainly from Jabhat al-Nusra, in Handarat on the main route to opposition-held Aleppo.

The Syrian forces initially took the three villages — Hardantain, Bashqwy, and Rityan — but they were soon pushed out of Basqhwy and Rityan and are under attack in Hardantain. The attack near Handarat appears to have roundly defeated.

See Syria Feature: Regime’s Surprise Attacks Near Aleppo — Success or Failure?

The attackers suffered significant losses in killed and captured on both fronts. Claims on Wednesday morning said at least 130 regime fighters had been killed, and that toll may be conservative, based on videos and photographs — one graphic example shows bodies in a “killing field” near Handarat — as well as the assertions of rebel factions and activists. Scores of Syrian troops, including dozens of Hezbollah fighters and some Iranian officers, have been shown as prisoners of war.

Pro-opposition activists say 52 rebels have been slain, but are putting the casualties in the context of victory. One said on Tuesday night, “Probably 2,000 to 2,500 regime troops stormed 3 villages, lost hundreds of fighters, and then retreated beyond their previous positions.”

State media is not mentioning the developments, with State news agency SANA making no reference at all to Aleppo Province in its roundup of Army operations against “terrorists”.

A Syrian T-72 tank seized by rebels at al-Mallah Farms, near Handarat:

Regime forces surrender in Rityan:

Captured fighters, claimed to be from Hezbollah, are made to chant the derogatory “Hasan toot toot” rather than the standard praise of the Hezbollah leader “Hasan Nasrallah”:

Rebels fighting in Hardantain:

Pro-Regime Al-Mayadeen: “No Hezbollah or Iranian Officers in Regime Offensive North of Aleppo”

Rida al-Basha, the Aleppo-based correspondent for the pro-regime Al-Mayadeen TV, tells Syria Direct that — contrary to numerous reports — “The news about Hezbollah and Iranian officers being present [in the regime offensive north of Aleppo] is false.”

Al-Basha explains that the erroneous reports occurred because local men were wearing Hezbollah uniforms — whether they were given them by Hezbollah fighters who then stayed behind in the regime villages, or whether they just happened to have the apparel is unclear — and were marking territory with Shia Islamic tributes:

There are young men from the [regime enclavess of Nubul and Zahra] wearing Hezbollah clothing, and writing the slogan “O Zeinab, here I am at your service, O Hussein.”…

The [rebel] militants thought these martyrs were Iranian because they didn’t surrender themselves and fought until they were martyred. As for Iranians, there are none — none.

Al-Basha said two journalists for Hezbollah’s outlet Al-Manar were killed as they were apparently with the only Hezbollah fighters in the operation:

I want to clarify that two people were filming the operations, a director with Al-Manar and a second person from Hezbollah who works in war journalism….

They were with some members of Hezbollah. In an operation that contained 1,500 fighters, I can tell you that the number of Hezbollah members probably isn’t more than the fingers of one hand — and three of them were war journalists.

Al-Basha refutes reports that the offensive failed. He says Syrian forces still hold the village of Hardantain and advanced in the al-Mallah Farms near Handarat, on the main route to Aleppo.

Opposition Coalition: Hezbollah and Iran Involvement in Offensive Shows Regime “Cannot Be Partner in Political Situation”

The opposition Syrian National Coalition has said that Hezbollah and Iranian involvement in the regime’s offensives in northwest and southern Syria prove that President Assad and his inner circle cannot be part of a political solution.

Effectively hitting back at UN envoy Staffan de Mistura — who said on Monday that President Assad must be part of the resolution of the four-year crisis — Coalition spokesman Salem al-Meslet said:

In conjunction with the announcement of the UN envoy to Syria…that the Assad regime is willing to stop the bombardment of Aleppo for six weeks, regime forces backed by Iranian and Hezbollah militiamen launched a large-scale offensive in rural Aleppo in parallel with a similar campaign in rebel-held areas in Dara’a province.

The large-scale successive regime offensives and the war crime that accompany then prove beyond doubt that the Assad regime cannot be trusted as a partner in any political solution.

Meslet also said, “The Assad regime continues to violate truces and agreements held with rebels in many areas across Syria, even those sponsored by international bodies, like what happened in Al Wa’er district in Homs when regime forces opened fire on convoys of the International Committee of the Red Cross as they were evacuating civilians.”

Tensions Rise Again in Northwest Between Rebel Factions Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Hazm

The prospect of renewed rebel in-fighting has risen in northwest Syria, as the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra has demanded that the Harakat Hazm brigade release its fighters from detention.

The two groups clashed in November when Harakat Hazm tried to stop Jabhat al-Nusra from clashing with another rebel group, the Syrian Revolutionary Front. In recent weeks, rebel blocs such as the Sham Front have attempted to ease the situation and reconcile the factions.

Jabhat al-Nusra have asked the Sham Front to withdraw its protection from Harakat Hazm, which has received weapons from the US as a “moderate” faction, if the detainees are not freed.

US: We Have Identified 1,200 “Moderate” Fighters To Train and Equip

The Pentagon said Wednesday that the US has identified about 1,200 Syrian opposition fighters to be trained and equipped as a “moderate” force.

The announcement follows the statement of unidentified American officials that the force might be able to call in US airstrikes, although it is unclear if that is only against the Islamic State or may also be against regime units.

The training is expected to begin in March in Jordan and then in Turkey and Qatar. The US has said that 3,000 fighters could be ready by the end of 2015.

“There’s about 1,200 individuals who have been identified for participation — potential participation — in this process and in this program,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. “Where they will be trained, I don’t have that information right now.”

On Tuesday, the US and Turkey said they expected to soon sign an agreement on training and equipment.

Kirby estimated that the total US force involved in the training mission could reach about 1,000 troops.

Rebels: Syrian Army Conscripts Shoot 13 Hezbollah Fighters in Back in Daraa Province

Rebel sources are claiming another example of deadly tension within regime forces: they say that Syrian conscripts shot 13 Hezbollah fighters from behind, amid the regime counter-offensive in Daraa in southern Syria.

Mohammed Alloush, a leading figure in Jaish al-Islam and the Islamic Front, disseminated the claim on Twitter:

Free Syrian Army sources are also circulating the report.

Last week opposition activists said Iranian and Hezbollah officers executed 19 Syrian personnel near Sanamein in Daraa, with allegations of failing to carry out orders and passing information to the enemy.

Opposition on Rejection of UN Envoy’s Aleppo “Freeze” Plan: “It’s Like Treating Cancer with Aspirin”

Speaking to Time magazine, opposition activists explain the comprehensive rejection of UN envoy Staffan de Mistura’s plan for a “freeze” to fighting in Aleppo.

On Tuesday, de Mistura said that President Assad — whom he met last week in Damascus — was willing to support a six-week ceasefire in Syria’s largest city, to allow for humanitarian aid and the possibility of a longer-term resolution.

However, Syria’s largest rebel blocs had already said they would not cooperate with de Mistura after the envoy pulled back the long-standing UN proposal for President Assad to step aside for a transitional governing authority. The regime also rejected any prospect of the “freeze” in opposition-held areas of northern Syria.

Louay Al Mokdad tells Time that the “freeze” would only allow the regime to redeploy its forces elsewhere in Syria to carry on bombing and killing: “Why should the people of Idlib die and the people of Aleppo live?”

He says of the supposed advance towards a political settlement, “It’s like treating cancer with an aspirin. You can’t fix this problem with aspirin.”

Southern Front Settles Into Uneasy Standoff After Regime Counter-Offensive

The regime counter-offensive in Damascus and Daraa Provinces in southern Syria has settled into an uneasy standoff after limited gains for Syrian forces.

The offensive, led by Hezbollah and Iranian forces, took Deir al-Addas; however, rebels are still attacking the town. The opposition has held Kafr Nasij, the next town on the 20-km (12-mile) front — State media have reduced references to the regime offensive to individual attacks on “members of a terrorist group”.

The regime offensive, which began last week, is hoping to push back months of insurgent advances south of Damascus and to establish a buffer zone protecting the southern approaches to the capital.

Further south, fighting continues in Daraa on the Jordanian border. The regime holds most of the city, but the opposition occupies Daraa al-Balad, the “Old City” section.