Mitchell Prothero

BEIRUT: Rebels on the outskirts of the Syrian capital launched an offensive over the weekend that apparently succeeded in breaking the government siege of several contested villages in a long battle that apparently involved the Lebanese Muslim Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Three rebel commanders confirmed to McClatchy on Monday that the offensive was ongoing, but each refused to provide details, saying that the newly dominant faction that controls rebel forces around Damascus had put a news blackout in place.

Abu Yaser, a spokesman for Jaysh al-Islam, a coalition of Islamist rebel groups, said details of the fight would be made public when the operation was completed.

Photos posted on Facebook and Twitter showed rebels celebrating what appeared to be a series of bloody victories over Hezbollah fighters who’d been supporting the Syrian army in the area. Rebels appeared to be holding prisoners, and some of the photos depicted apparent executions.

Word of the fighting came the same day that the United Nations announced that the United States and Russia had agreed to Jan. 22 as the date for the so-called Geneva 2 peace talks, intended to find a political solution to the civil war.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the date in New York. If the talks take place as planned, it will be the first meeting between representatives of President Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition since the civil war broke out in 2011.

“At long last and for the first time, the Syrian government and opposition will meet at the negotiation table rather than the battlefield,” Ban said.

It was still unclear who’d be attending the conference, which was originally called for in the so-called Geneva Communique agreed to by the United States, Russia and several other countries in June 2012.

Assad has said he’ll send a representative, but it’s been unclear which rebel factions will appear and whether countries such as Saudi Arabia, which supports the rebels, and Iran, which supports Assad, will be invited.

“We are still discussing the complete list of participants, and we will be meeting again on Dec. 20 for another trilateral, maybe the last one before the conference,” Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.’s special envoy to Syria, said in Geneva, referring to a meeting of representatives from the United States, Russia and the U.N. “We are in touch both with government and the opposition. We are asking them to name their delegations as early as possible, hopefully before the end of the year.”

He ducked questions on whether Iran would be invited, noting only that Ban and the head of the Arab League have said they’d favor its participation.

The timing of the announcement underscored a key rebel concern: that peace talks would begin while their campaign to oust Assad appeared to be flagging.