The head of Syria’s air defenses was killed in clashes near the capital, Damascus, a government official and activists said Sunday. Lt. Gen. Hussein Ishaq was one of a few high-ranking military officers to be killed in the country’s three-year-old conflict.

Ishaq’s death may boost the morale of those fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s government, as they have faced setbacks and surrendered territory over the past year.

Ishaq was one of the highest-ranking members of Syria’s army, said military analyst Hisham Jaber, a retired brigadier general in the Lebanese military.

Ishaq died Saturday after rebels attacked a Syrian air defense base near the town of Mleiha, the government official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists about the death.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also confirmed Ishaq’s death. It said he died from wounds suffered during fighting Saturday.

The Observatory, which bases its reports on a network of activists on the ground, said Ishaq was killed in clashes with fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra,
an al-Qaeda affiliate, and other Islamist rebel groups.

Jaber said it was likely that Ishaq led a weeks-long operation to push rebels out of Mleiha, a town on Damascus’s eastern outskirts.

“This is very important for morale,” Jaber said. “The man was extremely senior. He had the highest rank in the military. The number of them — alive or dead — are extremely few.”

But retired Lebanese Gen. Amin Hoteit said it was unlikely that Ishaq’s death would have any long-term effect on the Syrian war. He said such leaders always groom a successor.

Forces loyal to Assad have conducted a heavy bombing campaign around the area to flush rebels out of Mleiha. Rebels see the town as strategically important because of its proximity to the capital.

The Syrian air defense unit fired rockets into Mleiha, said a Damascus-based activist going by the name Abu Akram al-Shami.

The government-run Syrian Arab News Agency did not report Ishaq’s death.

Also Sunday, rebels captured a village in northwestern Syria, killing more than 30 pro-government fighters in clashes, activists said.

The village of Tel Meleh, northwest of the city of Hama, has changed hands several times.

The Observatory said that at least 34 pro-government fighters and four rebels were killed. The Local Coordination Committees activist group also reported the incident but did not say how many people were killed.

— Associated Press