By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — Capitalizing on a recent influx of weapons, Syrian rebels are waging a strategic battle for the southern part of the country and seeking to secure a corridor from the Jordanian border to Damascus in preparation for an eventual assault on the capital.
On Friday, the rebels celebrated their latest victory: They seized full control of Dael, a key town along a main highway, after forces of President Bashar Assad's regime all but withdrew from the area.
"God is great! We are coming, Bashar!" armed fighters cried overnight Thursday after they captured the last of the military checkpoints in the town where Assad's forces had been holed up, according to amateur video posted online.
Dael is one of the bigger towns in the southern Daraa province, where the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, when security forces arrested high school students who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall.
Activists say it was in Dael that the first statue of Assad's father and predecessor, the late President Hafez Assad, was first toppled shortly after the protests broke out.
The regime responded with a ferocious military crackdown in the area. For a long time, it succeeded in muting the revolt there while government troops turned their attention to defending Syria's northern and eastern regions against rebel advances as the uprising turned into a civil war in which an estimated 70,000 people have been killed.
But in dusty agricultural towns and villages across the province, the rebels have recently gone on the offensive, expanding their presence with a renewed sense of purpose. The rebel fighters include Islamic militants.
The strategic region — known as the Houran plains, which stretch from the outskirts of the capital south into Jordan — is seen as a crucial gateway to the ultimate prize of Damascus.
A recent influx of weapons appears to have made the goal seem more within reach than ever.
Although rebels control wide areas in northern Syria that border Turkey, the Jordanian frontier is only about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Damascus, or a third of the distance to Turkey in the north, where fighters control large swaths of territory.
Rebels have established footholds in a number of Damascus suburbs but have only been able to push into limited areas in the southern and northeastern parts of the capital. Fighters say they are trying to carve out a route from Jordan to Damascus.
In recent weeks, they have made significant advances in the southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra bordering Jordan and Israel, seizing towns and villages near the cease-fire line between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights and along the international highway linking Damascus with Jordan.
They also seized several army checkpoints, clearing a 25-kilometer (15-mile) stretch along the Syrian-Jordanian border. Last week, rebels seized a major air defense base near the village of Saida.
It is difficult to know the size of the area controlled by the rebels. Activists say that in many towns and villages in the province, regime forces maintain "symbolic" presence through small bases and checkpoints that are increasingly coming under attack.
Fighting takes place on daily basis in areas like Tafas, Sheikh Maskin and Izraa along the route.
On Friday, regime forces abandoned the last of several checkpoints in Dael after a 24-hour rebel offensive. Dael has a population of 40,000 people, making it one of the bigger towns in the region, which is dotted with small family farms, and is less than 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the Jordanian border in Daraa province.
An activist in Tafas, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared government retaliation, said the presence of the regime forces in the province was shrinking daily.
The Ababil Houran and al-Omari brigades are among the prominent groups taking part in the fighting, along with the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, a band of Islamic militants that held 21 Filipino peacekeepers hostage for four days last month, raising concerns about the future of U.N. operations in the Golan Heights.
Amateur video posted online by activists showed rebels in the streets of Dael and the bodies of dead soldiers on the ground. They also showed women celebrating and fighters shouting, "We are coming, Bashar." The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting on the events depicted.