Syria: New group Jaysh Tahrir as-Sham takes on Hezbollah

BEIRUT – A newly formed rebel group says it has launched an operation against pro-regime forces, including Hezbollah fighters, along the Damascus-Baghdad highway.

Jaysh Tahrir as-Sham, which was formed in late March, announced Thursday that it had “seized control of the Baghdad-Damascus” highway running northeast of the capital.

“[We] have liberated several points that were under the control of Hezbollah,” the group’s terse statement added.

One of the militant group’s field commanders told the pro-opposition AlSouria Net news outlet that Jaysh Tahrir as-Sham fighters seized the “strategic points” in the eastern Qalamoun mountains following a dawn sneak attack.

He further claimed that the rebels had killed “dozens of Hezbollah and regime forces,” adding that the regime responded with heavy air raids and artillery fire originating from the nearby town of Ruhaybah.

No independent verification of the purported fighting was available, however the Syrain Observatory for Human Rights reported Thursday that deadly fighting erupted on the outskirts of the eastern Qalamoun region between Islamist battalions and pro-regime forces.

The monitoring group did not elaborate further, however the mountainous area on the eastern slopes has not witnessed much sustained fighting in recent weeks.

Jaysh Tahrir as-Sham announced its formation in a YouTube video released March 25 in which the group’s leader, Captain Fares Bitar, announced that the rebel organization’s goal was to “liberate Syria from Assad’s gangs and Iranian occupation [as well] as its mercanaries.”

Bitar, one of the early defectors from the Syrian army, has served as an officer in the different Free Syrian Army outfits that have operated in the eastern Qalamoun region.