PHOTO: Syrian soldier in the Qalamoun mountains

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Days of fighting continued on Thursday in Syria’s Qalamoun region, near the Lebanon border, with Hezbollah and Syrian forces battling with rebels and the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra.

Each side has claimed victory, both in territory gained and casualties inflicted. On Thursday, Hezbollah’s declaration, spread by pro-Assad outlets as well as Lebanon’s Daily Star, was that it had secured the area around the town of ‘Assal Al-Ward — which it occupied last spring — and al-Juba on the border of Lebanon, as well as two villages. Hezbollah said that three rebel commanders, including the Jabhat al-Nusra commander in al-Juba, had been killed.

Jabhat al-Nusra countered that it had killed dozens of Hezbollah and Syrian troops, including five Hezbollah and Syrian commanders.

The Hezbollah-Syrian forces are hoping to link up the Assal al-Ward area with the mountainous region around Arsal, the Lebanon border town 35 km (22 miles) away.

A Hezbollah-Syrian offensive has long been anticipated; however, the rebels tried to pre-empt this at the start of the week with a series of attacks. The rebel coalition has announced an operations room for Qalamoun, but so far the bulk of the fighting appeared to have been between the Islamist faction and the Hezbollah-Syrian forces.

The entire Qalamoun region stretches from the Lebanese region eastwards through Damascus Province to the north of the Syrian capital. Syrian forces captured cities and towns across the area in offensive from late 2013 through summer 2014, but rebels continued to hold positions in much of the countryside.


Diplomats: Inspectors Find Traces of Sarin and Nerve Agent at Military Research Sites

Unnamed diplomats have said that international inspectors have found traces of sarin and VX nerve agent at an undeclared military research site in Syria.

Samples taken by experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition and Chemical Weapons in December and January also tested positive for chemical precursors needed to make the toxic agents, the sources told Reuters.

“This is a pretty strong indication they have been lying about what they did with sarin,” one diplomat said. “They have so far been unable to give a satisfactory explanation about this finding.”

The diplomatic sources said the sarin and VX nerve samples were taken from the Scientific Studies and Research Centre, a government agency which has allegedly developed biological and chemical weapons.

Asked about the claims, OPCW spokesman Peter Sawczak said: “Obviously we are working to clarify Syria’s declaration. I cannot discuss any details of that process, but in due course the assessment team will issue a report.”

In August 2013, the Syrian military killed up to 2,000 people when it attacked multiple sites near Damascus with rockets carrying sarin.

The Assad regime handed over 1,300 tons of chemical stocks to a joint UN-OPCW mission for destruction last year.


State Media Video of Syrian Forces, Outside Rebel-Held Jisr al-Shughour, Inadvertently Undermines Regime Propaganda

State media shows footage of Syrian forces outside the city of Jisr al-Shughour in northwest Syria, captured by rebels in late March:

However, far from establishing that Syrian troops are advancing for President Assad’s declared mission of re-entering Jisr al-Shughour, the clip inadvertently undermines the claims. It shows the Sugar Factory — which pro-Assad accounts said that the Syrian military had recaptured days ago — in the distance, apparently still held by the rebels.


Syrian National Coalition Writes to UN Security Council over Assad Use of Chemical Weapons

The opposition Syrian National Coalition has written to the President of the UN Security Council to call for “urgent…action to prevent further atrocities” after the Assad regime’s latest chemical weapons attacks.

In the letter to Lithuania’s Raimonda Murmokaitė, the Coalition claims at least nine regime attacks with chlorine gas in the last two weeks in Idlib Province in northwest Syria. The opposition says at least two children were killed and more than 150 people were injured.

Saying the failure to enforce Security Council resolutions against chemical attacks is a “permanent stain on the international community”, the Coalition calls for a no-fly zone and pursuit of justice through the International Criminal Court or an ad hoc tribunal.