Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad captured a suburb of Damascus on Wednesday, part of a broader advance that has brought him major gains south of the capital before proposed international peace talks, activists said.
The fall of the rebel-held town of Hujaira, next to a Shi'ite shrine where pro-Assad militia from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon are based, occurred after loyalist forces overran a series of Sunni Muslim suburbs in the area in recent weeks defended by Islamist rebels who include al Qaeda-linked foreign jihadists, Reuters reported.
Activist Rami al-Sayyed said fighters from the Qatar-backed Ahfad al-Rasul brigade as well as the al Qaeda affiliates al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, withdrew from Hujaira into Hajar al-Aswad, a dense neighborhood closer to the center of capital, after being pounded by artillery and air strikes for weeks.
"Southern districts that have been under rebel control for more than a year are falling one by one. There is no unified command and morale has been hit. Hajar al-Aswad and a series of towns in the hands of the resistance in the south and southwest edge of Damascus are now exposed," Sayyed said from the region.
Fighting in Damascus and Aleppo has intensified as diplomats struggle to convene peace talks in Geneva aimed at finding a political solution to the 2-1/2 year-old civil war.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition agreed on Monday it would attend the planned talks but said Assad and his inner circle could play no role in the future of the country.