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Syrian rebels target key southern border region

BEIRUT -- Syrian rebels captured a military base in the south yesterday and set their sights on seizing control of a strategically important region along the border with Jordan that would give them a critical gateway to attempt an attack on the capital, Damascus.

With foreign aid and training of rebels in Jordan ramping up, the opposition fighters have regained momentum in their fight to topple President Bashar Assad.

But while the fall of southern Syria would facilitate the rebel push for Damascus, it might also create dangerous complications, potentially drawing Syria's neighbors into the 2-year-old civil war. Besides abutting Jordan, the region includes territory that borders Syria's side of the Golan Heights, along a sensitive frontier with Israel.

"This is a very sensitive triangle we are talking about," said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who heads the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research in Beirut. "The fall of Daraa, if it happens, may usher in strategic changes in the area."

For the rebels, control of the south is key to their advance toward Damascus.

Dozens of fighting brigades have carved up footholds in areas to the east and south of the capital, where they fire off mortar shells on the heavily guarded city.

The significance of their gains in the south was on display yesterday when the rebels stormed a military base after a five-day siege.

"Damascus will be liberated from here, from Daraa, from the south," declared an fighter, a rifle slung over his shoulder and a kaffiyeh tied around his face.

Videos posted online by activists showed him and other unidentified rebels celebrating inside the Syrian army's 49th battalion in the village of Alma, on the outskirts of Daraa.

"We will march to the presidential palace from here," said another fighter, amid bursts of Allahu akbar, or God is great.

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