Syrian regime retakes Christian village from Islamist rebels

Syrian army forces led by Hezbollah’s well-trained guerillas recaptured the ancient Christian village of Maaloula from Islamist rebels early Tuesday morning and announced the end of a months-long campaign to take control of the strategic mountain range that rebels had controlled for more than a year.

But as state television hailed what it called the liberation of Maaloula – where rebels abducted 12 nuns from a monastery in December and released them in a hostage swap in February – and the broader Qalamoun region, Syria’s allies in Hezbollah were mourning the loss of three journalists killed in the fighting.

A spokesman for Al Manar, a Hezbollah-owned news channel, said correspondent Hamza al Haj Hassan, cameraman Mohammed Mantash and sound technician Halim Allaw were killed Monday evening when the Hezbollah convoy they were embedded with came under rebel ambush. Two unidentified Al Manar employees were wounded in the attack, according to the spokesman, who declined to be identified in a Western news publication.

Al Manar and Al Mayadeen, an independent station that’s deeply sympathetic to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, have frequently filed live dispatches from the fighting in Qalamoun, where the usually secretive Hezbollah troops have been openly fighting as a conventional military force to retake control of the rugged terrain, which links the rebel stronghold of Arsal in Lebanon with the fighting in the outskirts of Damascus, Syria’s capital.

In recent weeks, the journalists’ presence on the battlefield and their willingness to file live reports had irritated Syrian army commanders, who thought Hezbollah’s exploits were overshadowing the Syrian efforts.

“A Syrian general was angry that Manar and Mayadeen were making it sound like Hezbollah was winning the war for them,” according to Abu Khodor, a Hezbollah unit commander who regularly oversees fighters in Qalamoun. “This started to lead to some tensions, because Hezbollah really doesn’t trust the Syrian army on the battlefield. Some commanders refuse to fight when they’re supposed to on an operation. Others are corrupt and sell weapons to the FSA,” a reference to the moderate Free Syrian Army rebels.

The Hezbollah commander said the deaths of the three men came during this period of tension but that he suspected they were killed by a rebel ambush.

“The Syrian army wouldn’t ambush a Hezbollah unit just to kill some journalists,” he said.

Rebel activists confirmed his account and said tensions had erupted after Hezbollah fighters captured the religious shrines in the town of Sadanya on Saturday and footage aired by both networks came to the attention of the local Syrian army commander, Haider Saqr, who reportedly ordered the media removed from the battlefield.

Although tensions between the allies have rarely gone public, Hezbollah members have quietly but consistently criticized the professionalism and conduct of the Syrian army and other pro-regime militias in conversations with journalists.

“There have been many cases of Syrian units not showing up to fight or running away during a battle,” another Hezbollah commander said on the subject in an interview earlier this year. “In some cases, Hezbollah has lost men because the (jihadis) attacked us from areas the Syrian army was supposed to be. Without Hezbollah and Iran, the regime would have fallen.”

Despite those tensions, the months-long operation to retake control of Qalamoun, which is adjacent to the main highway that links Damascus to the regime’s ethic heartland along the coast, has been a resounding success, with all the major rebel-controlled towns recaptured and thousands of rebel fighters killed or dispersed.

In a new operation that began just as the success in Maaloula was announced, Syrian units backed by Hezbollah began a final push to retake control of the old city of Homs, where a tiny pocket of rebels has withstood a two-year siege. Earlier this year, the United Nations brokered a temporary cease-fire to allow civilians out of the area and some food aid to enter.