The troops were backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.
Syrian troops backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters clashed with rebel forces, on Wednesday, south of a Damascus suburb housing a major Shiite Muslim shrine, in an attempt to secure the area surrounding it, according to activists.
State TV said government forces were able to clear rebels out of the neighbourhood near the historic, gold-domed shrine of Sayida Zeinab, the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter. Rebel forces claimed they took control of a hospital in a village south of the shrine neighborhood, from which they were battling regime forces and allied militias.
Opposition fighters control several suburbs of the capital, trying to threaten the heart of the city, seat of President Bashar Assad’s power, but the regime has largely been able to keep them at bay.
The Sayida Zeinab suburb has seen fighting before, but the regime forces and Shiite Hezbollah fighters launched an intensified assault there on Monday, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group of anti-regime activists that has a network of activists on the ground.
Before the war, Shiite pilgrims from outside Syria regularly visited the shrine. Last year, rebels kidnapped Iranian pilgrims visiting the area, accusing them of being spies.
Now protection of the shrine has become a rallying cry for Shiite fighters backing Assad. Lebanese guerrillas from Hezbollah as well as Iraqi Shiite militiamen have been reported fighting in the area in the past weeks, though it was not clear if Iraqis were involved in the new assault.
In recent months, the Syrian conflict’s sectarian overtones have been growing, particularly with the overt participation of Hezbollah on the side of the regime, dominated by Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.
The rebels are largely Sunni Muslims, and have also been joined by Sunni fighters from countries in the region.
U.S. officials estimate that there are 5,000 Hezbollah militiamen fighting alongside the regime, while thousands of Sunni foreign fighters are also believed to be in Syria including members of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate believed to be among the most effective rebel factions in Syria.
The United States decided last week to send arms to the rebel forces. But the G-8 summit of world leaders ended Tuesday without mentioning arms in its final statement, reflecting a split on the issue. The group includes Russia, which opposes the idea.