Syrian Rebels Advance Near Golan

BEIRUT (AP) -
Israeli soldiers atop a tank watch smoke and explosions from the fighting between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebels in the Druze village of Khader in Syria, as seen from the Golan Heights, Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Israeli soldiers atop a tank watch smoke and explosions from the fighting between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebels in the Druze village of Khader in Syria, as seen from the Golan Heights, Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Syrian rebels launched a wide-ranging offensive against government positions near the Israeli side of the Golan Heights on Wednesday, after shelling in and around Damascus killed at least 33 people, activists said.

The rebels of the Southern Front alliance and the so-called Haramoun Army targeted several areas in the Golan, including the towns and villages of Quneitra, Khan Arnabeh, Baath, Jiba and the base of Brigade 90, the main government force in the region, said opposition activist Jamal al-Jolani, who is based in southern Syria.

“The fighting now is inside the city of Quneitra,” al-Jolani said via Skype. He said the Haramoun Army — which includes al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham — shelled the area while Southern Front fighters advanced on the ground.

Insurgents have been on the offensive in southern Syria for the past three months, capturing military bases, villages and a border crossing point with Jordan.

Maj. Issam el Rayyes, a spokesman for the Southern Front, said the aim of the offensive “is to liberate remaining regime targets in Quneitra.” He added that they aim to link southern Syria with rebel-held neighborhoods in the suburbs of Assad’s seat of power in the capital, Damascus.

“This is a wide battle, not a simple one,” he said, adding that in addition to the towns and village in Quneitra, the rebels are fighting to control a series of strategic hills in the southern region.

Explosions from the fighting could be seen from the Israel side of the Golan Heights several miles away. A Syrian government helicopter could be heard dropping bombs on rebel targets as tanks, believed to belong to the rebels, fired back. An Israeli warplane flew along the frontier as a precautionary move.

Just before noon, warning sirens sounded in the Israeli side of the Golan, near the Quneitra border crossing. Shelling and gunfire from Syria’s civil war occasionally has strayed across the frontier, but there were no immediate reports of any spillover Wednesday. The Golan is a popular destination for tourists, some of whom stopped to watch the fighting in the distance.