DAMASCUS: Syrian Kurds drove jihadists from an Iraq border crossing in fierce clashes on Saturday, activists said, as the UN-Arab League envoy took his regional peace mission to regime ally Iran.
Fighters from both sides were killed in the border clashes, which came a day after Syria’s regime and its opponents traded blame for a car bomb attack on a mosque that left dozens dead.
The Kurds “took control of the Al-Yaarubia border crossing with Iraq at dawn after clashes with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Al-Nusra Front and other rebels,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, citing activists.
The Kurds have been struggling to carve out an autonomous northeastern region similar to one in northern Iraq, further complicating the war pitting Sunni-led rebels against President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The rebels have increasingly turned their guns on each other in the past few months, with jihadists fighting the mainstream Free Syrian Army in the north, where the insurgents control vast swathes of territory.
The loss of Al-Yaarubia crossing would deny ISIL — an Al-Qaeda affiliate that has carried out major attacks on both sides of the border — a vital conduit for fighters and arms.
The Al-Nusra Front, another Al-Qaeda-linked group, meanwhile denied a Syrian state TV report that its leader, Abu Mohammed Al-Jawlani, had been killed.
On other battlefronts, rebels on Saturday seized the town of Tafas, which links the eastern and western sectors of Daraa province along the border with Jordan, the Observatory said.
It also reported fierce clashes between government troops and rebel forces, including jihadists, for control of a large arsenal in Mahin, in the central province of Homs.
The Syrian conflict flared when Assad’s opponents took up arms in response to his regime’s brutal crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired protests that erupted in March 2011.
More than 115,000 people are estimated to have been killed. Millions more have been uprooted from their homes, and a UN official said Friday that hundreds of thousands are trapped by the relentless fighting.
As the violence raged on, UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Saturday in Tehran that Iran’s participation in international peace talks on Syria was “necessary,” Iranian news agencies reported.
“We think the participation of Iran at Geneva 2 is natural and necessary,” Brahimi said at a joint press conference after talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
But he stressed that no invitations have yet been sent out for the proposed international peace conference, which the United Nations hopes to organize for late November.
Zarif, whose country is a top ally of the embattled Damascus regime, said that “if Iran is invited to take part in Geneva 2, we will be there to help find a diplomatic solution.”
But despite pressure from its Western and Arab backers, the fractured Syrian opposition has yet to decide whether to attend Geneva 2.
The opposition has insisted that Assad step down as part of any political settlement, which Damascus says is off the table.
Saturday’s violence comes a day after a car bomb outside a mosque in Suq Wadi Barada, a town near Damascus, killed at least 40 people and wounded dozens more, according to the Britain-based Observatory.
State news agency SANA said “the car exploded while the terrorists were packing it with explosives,” using the regime term for rebels.
The opposition National Coalition blamed the regime for the “massacre” caused by what it said were two car bombs placed outside the Osama Bin Zeid mosque.
Elsewhere, an army ambush killed 24 rebels on the outskirts of Damascus, said the Observatory. SANA put the toll at 40.
The army has closed in on Eastern Ghouta, a ring of rebel-held suburbs it has besieged for months and which was targeted in an August chemical attack that killed hundreds of people and almost led to punitive US strikes.
UN and US officials have expressed concern about Eastern Ghouta and other besieged Damascus suburbs, following reports of severe food shortages and rising malnutrition there.
A UN-commissioned report said more than half of Syria’s population is living in poverty and warned that the economic devastation could last for years.