BEIRUT – Syrian government troops and Hezbollah militia took control on Sunday of the strategic town of Yabroud near the border with Lebanon, a major blow to rebel forces in eastern Syria who are now effectively cut off from fighters near Damascus as well as rebel-held areas to the north.
With nowhere else to flee, rebels crossed into Lebanon, raising the prospect of fighting there between rebels and their Lebanese supporters in the town of Arsal on one side and the Lebanese army and fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement on the other. Syrian government aircraft were reported to have struck retreating rebels and refugees along the border.
Syrian state TV and Lebanese channels with close ties to Hezbollah, which committed hundreds of fighters to the push against Yabroud, reported the city’s capture, with Syrian TV announcing that the operation had “returned security and stability to the town of Yabroud and its surroundings in northern Damascus province.”
Yabroud is the largest city in Qalamoun, a mountainous region along the Syria-Lebanon border that once linked rebels fighting in Damascus with pro-rebel safe havens in Lebanon. It had served as a hub for rebel activity against both the government of President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah. Lebanese authorities have blamed militants in Yabroud for manufacturing car bombs that have repeatedly struck pro-Hezbollah neighborhoods in Beirut since last summer.
Because of the Qalamoun’s strategic position linking the pro-rebel Lebanese town of Arsal with the rest of the Syrian battlefield, the government’s monthslong campaign has been treated as strategically important by both sides. Hezbollah committed hundreds of its well-trained fighters while rebels set aside their differences to welcome sizable detachments of Al-Qaida-linked fighters from the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who have been fighting one another elsewhere in Syria.
The fall of Yabroud followed the government recapture last year of the town of Qusayr and a successful campaign to take rebel-held districts in both Hama and Homs provinces to the north.
The news that Yabroud had fallen was greeted with relief, the distribution of candies and heavy celebratory gunfire in Beirut’s pro-Hezbollah neighborhoods in the southern suburbs, which have been living under extreme security measures after about dozen suicide bombings targeted the area in recent months.
“People are happy because they think the car bombs will stop hitting us now,” said Abu Ibrahim, a Shiite resident of southern Beirut with close ties to Hezbollah. “They are handing out sweets, shooting in the air and hoping that this means their people and families will stop dying.”