Syria rebels shoot down two warplanes in northwest
BEIRUT (UPDATE) - Gunmen killed an Iranian commander in Syria while rebels shot down two fighter jets and overran a town on Thursday, dealing further setbacks for forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
The ambush that killed the Revolutionary Guards commander, the downing of the aircraft in the northwest and the seizure the town of Shadadeh near the Iraq border amounted to four straight days of battlefield successes for the rebellion.
The insurgents overran a military air base in Aleppo province on Tuesday, after taking control of Syria's largest dam in the neighbouring province of Raqa the day before.
The latest setbacks came after new US Secretary of State John Kerry said President Bashar al-Assad needed to abandon hopes of riding out the war and instead accept the "inevitability" of his departure.
On Thursday, Iran's Revolutionary Guards said one of its commanders, Hassan Shateri, was "martyred... at the hands of Zionist regime mercenaries and backers" while travelling on the road between the Syrian and Lebanese capitals.
The Guards said the commander was also head of the Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon, and the Iranian embassy in Beirut gave a similar account, but named the slain man as Hessam Khoshnevis.
A strong ally of the Damascus regime, Tehran often refers to rebels fighting Assad's troops as "terrorists" with ties to arch foe Israel.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi strongly condemned the killing as a "terrorist act" and paid tribute to "this commander of Islam and his tireless efforts in reconstruction".
Syria's rebellion flared after Assad's forces launched a bloody crackdown on peaceful democracy protests that erupted in March 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings.
It has become increasingly dominated by Islamist groups, however, and one of the most prominent of these, the Al-Nusra Front, seized the town of Shadadeh in the oil-rich northeastern province of Hasakeh on Thursday.
"After three days of fierce battles against the army, Al-Nusra Front fighters have seized control of Shadadeh," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Fighting and car bomb attacks by the jihadists left more than 100 troops dead in three days, during which 30 Al-Nusra Front fighters also died. Five of the jihadists killed in the violence were from Kuwait, said the Observatory.
"Dozens of employees" working for the state petrol company were also killed in the rebels' assault on the town, said the Britain-based watchdog, without elaborating.
But elsewhere in the war-torn country, the army made its own advance, taking a district in the central city of Homs after weeks of heavy clashes.
"The army has entered Jobar in western Homs, and rebel fighters have withdrawn from the district," said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Observatory which relies on a network of sources for its information.
The victory comes a week after the army took control of Kafraya on the southwestern outskirts of Homs, a city opposition activists refer as "the capital of the revolution".
On January 19, the army launched an all-out bid to secure the route linking Damascus to the coast, which runs through western Homs but has so far failed to take complete control.
Elsewhere in Homs province, the air force bombarded the ancient city of Palmyra for the 10th day in a row, and warplanes also raided the nearby town of Rastan, activists and monitors said.
"Homs province is strategic to the regime because it is the largest in the country and because it links Damascus to the coast," said Abu Rawan, a Rastan-based activist.
In Washington, Kerry said on Wednesday after talks Jordan Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh that Washington and Jordan could take renewed steps to urge Syrian ally Russia to bring more pressure on Assad to quit.
Those remarks came after Russia insisted it was ready to host talks with both sides in the conflict which has a death toll approaching 70,000.
Syria welcomed the invitation, while stressing its foreign minister would not meet Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the opposition chief who has offered to hold peace talks with regime officials without blood on their hands. - Rappler.com