Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah fighters seized a key rebel supply town on the Lebanese border on Sunday, driving them from the area and scoring a major blow against them in the three-year-old conflict.
The fall of Yabroud immediately emboldened government forces to attack nearby rebel-held towns, pressing forward in what has been nearly a year-long advance against rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
Support from the Iranian-backed Shia Hezbollah appears to have tipped the balance in the border area, even as it has partly prompted the conflict to bleed into Lebanon where it has ignited sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shia.
In Lebanon, 13 people have been killed in Syria-related violence in recent days: 12 in gun battles and one in a rocket attack. And in the capital, Hezbollah supporters celebrated Yabroud’s fall with celebratory gunfire in Shia-dominated areas, while youths on motorbikes waving the yellow Hezbollah flag noisily roared through the wealthy central district.
Yabroud was an important supply line for rebels into Lebanon, and overlooks an important cross-country highway from Damascus to the central city of Homs. It was the last major rebel-held town in the mountainous Qalamoun region, where Assad’s forces have been waging an offensive for months to sever routes across the porous border. Its fall comes just a week after the Syrian army seized the village of Zara, another conduit for rebels from mountainous northern Lebanon into central Syria.
Syria’s state television reported that military forces were removing booby traps and bombs and hunting down rebel strongholds in Yabroud.
“Our armed forces are now chasing the remnants of the terrorist gangs in the area,” said a uniformed soldier speaking on Syrian television. “This new achievement... cuts supply lines and tightens the noose around terrorist strongholds remaining in the Damascus countryside,” said the soldier.
Syrian officials refer to rebels as “terrorists”.
A spokesman for the Islamic Front, a rebel coalition, said fighters fled the hills that overlook Yabroud before Syrian army troops entered.
Captain Islam Alloush said other rebels later fled Yabroud overnight, collapsing the ranks of fighters. “There’s no doubt Yabroud had big strategic importance,” he said. “This will make it easier for the regime to occupy other nearby villages.”
He said the biggest immediate loss would be that rebels now had no way of supplying ranks in rural Damascus where Syrian forces have surrounded a series of opposition-held areas, denying them food, power and clean water.
Gunfire and clashes could be heard on footage broadcast live by the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen and Hezbollah station al-Manar. It showed troops walking through empty streets.
A black flag used by Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate, the Nusra Front, still flapped from a building near what appeared to be an abandoned rebel army post painted in the colours of a flag used by other rebels: green, white and black.
Kasem Alzein, a Syrian pro-rebel doctor who lives in the nearby Lebanese border town of Arsal, said a hardcore group of fighters decided to remain in Yabroud to fight to the death. Three other activists also said rebels aimed to drag Syrian army troops into street-to-street fighting, where they believed they had an advantage.
“They don’t want to surrender,” Alzein said, even as he acknowledged Yabroud’s loss. Alzein said he hoped rebels could still find a way across the border.
“They can’t close all the mountain pathways. God willing, God will open a path for us,” he said.