BEIRUT — Syrian troops and fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah group seized several towns and villages south of Damascus on Wednesday, state media and activists said, advancing in a region bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The government counteroffensive aims at recapturing areas seized by Syrian rebels and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, whose recent advances had brought them closer to embattled President Bashar Assad's seat of power.
The government late last year lost large parts of the Quneitra region on the edge of the Golan. State television said troops gained control of the town of Deir al-Adas and the village of Deir Maker, as well as the nearby areas of Tal al-Arous and Tal al-Sarjeh.
"The operations are being led by Hezbollah's special forces," said Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. "Their aim appears to be to eventually reach areas bordering the occupied Golan and set up a border zone under Hezbollah's control."
The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists around the country, said Iranian volunteers are also taking part in the fighting. It said 20 opposition fighters were killed there on Tuesday alone.
Hezbollah has been fighting alongside forces loyal to Assad, saying it is battling Sunni Islamic extremists who pose a threat to the whole region. Israeli officials accuse Iran, through Hezbollah, of working to establish a base in southern Syria to launch attacks against the Jewish state. Hezbollah denies seeking any military presence there.
On Jan. 18, an Israeli airstrike near the Golan killed seven people, including an Iranian general, a top Hezbollah commander and the son of a slain top commander. Hezbollah said the fighters were inspecting positions in the Golan. Part of the strategic plateau was seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
Although Syrian state television and Hezbollah's Al-Manar satellite channel purportedly reported live from Deir al-Adas, a rebel spokesman said they only captured the town briefly before being forced out.
Gen. Ibrahim Jbawi, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army's southern front, said the fighting killed or wounded 200 government forces and Hezbollah fighters. He said rebels also destroyed 13 tanks. His report could not be independently confirmed.
"The (Syrian) regime is trying to regain some of its standing" in the area, Jbawi said.
In Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Assad met with U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura to discuss his proposal for reducing the violence, starting with a hostilities freeze in the northern city of Aleppo.
De Mistura did not disclose details of the meeting, but state-run news agency SANA said the two discussed "new details" in the U.N. plan to freeze fighting in Aleppo "in a positive and constructive climate."