Troops loyal to the Iran- and Russia-backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad have reconquered areas in and around the Syrian capital of Damascus that they lost over the weekend after a surprise attack launched by al-Qaeda-linked jihadi rebels and other opposition groups.
Media controlled by the Assad regime and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), an organization that uses ground sources to monitor the conflict, report that the dictator’s troops managed to repel the attack by the rebels.
Members from Ahrar al-Sham, the recently formed jihadi umbrella group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) were reportedly among the opposition fighters.
Formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra or the Nusra Front, JFS declared it was no longer affiliated with al-Qaeda after it changed its name in July of last year.
However, various analysts have dismissed the terrorist group’s break with al-Qaeda “as a feint, seeing it as a long game the jihadist group has been playing for some time across the Middle East and Africa,” reported Voice of America (VOA) at the time.
Referring to jihadists from Ahrar al-Sham, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and JFS, CNN reports, “Rebel groups who launched a surprise attack in northeastern Damascus were taking advantage of Syrian regime forces being overstretched by fighting elsewhere in the country, an expert on the region said.”
Rami Abdel Rahman, the SOHR director, pointed out that rebel groups have not attacked Damascus “in months if not years,” adds CNN, noting that “since the start of the conflict, the Syrian regime and allied militias have held a tight grip on the capital. The opposition has only a few pockets of control around Damascus, including a part of the district of Jobar.”
Iran-backed Shiite fighters are reportedly among the allied militias fighting on behalf of Syrian dictator Assad in Damascus and elsewhere in Syria.
On Monday, the human rights monitor group noted that “violent clashes continue” between the Assad-allied troops and Islamic factions.”
Both sides have taken losses. The regime forces lost at least 26 of its fighters while the rebels suffered the loss of 21 jihadists.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) quoted a military source echoing the monitor group on Monday, saying the Assad-allied troops have retaken all positions that the rebels conquered on Sunday.
CNN learned from Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow in the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, that “the clashes come at a time when the Syrian regime has been weakened in the capital — located in the south of the country — due to its focus on fighting [ISIS] in Raqqa, in the north.”
Raqqa is ISIS’s de-facto capital in Syria.
“The regime only has about 18,000 in deployable manpower and they’re being pushed by Russia and the Iranians to go and fight for Raqqa. This has left them vulnerable elsewhere,” Tabler told CNN. ”They’re spread too thin and this has allowed rebels to advance.”