BEIRUT — Syrian forces have overrun a strategic rebel stronghold close to the Lebanese border, the military said Sunday, in the latest battlefield victory for the government of President Bashar Assad.
The official news service reported that Syrian troops were in "full control" of Yabroud, a longtime rebel bastion and key logistics base for opposition supplies and insurgents entering Syria from Lebanese territory.
Aiding Syrian troops in the battle were militiamen from Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that has dispatched units to fight alongside Assad's forces.
The capture of Yabroud, coming as the Syrian war enters its fourth year, underscores how much the conflict has turned in the government's favor.
The town lies close to the major highway leading from Damascus, the capital, north to the key cities of Homs, Hama and Aleppo, and another roadway heading west to the Mediterranean coast. Its capture brings renewed security to the crucial arteries, which have often been cut by fighting.
Yabroud's fall also means that all the major towns along rebel supply lines from Lebanon are now in government hands, squeezing reinforcement efforts. Officials said the advances would make it more difficult for the opposition to supply forces in the nearby suburbs of Damascus.
The fall of Yabroud is also another psychological and symbolic setback for Syrian rebels, reeling from a string of defeats.
The Syrian army heralded the seizure as "a fatal blow to the terrorists, their supporters and funders." The government routinely refers to rebels as terrorists.
Among the opposition factions that occupied Yabroud were fighters of Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda-linked group that the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization.
Pro-government forces have been tightening the noose around Yabroud for a month, using airstrikes, artillery barrages and methodical infantry advances in a multipronged assault. The operation is part of a broader offensive to retake control of the Qalamoun region, a rugged, mountainous strip hugging the Lebanese border.
Most civilians long ago fled Yabroud, which was once home to more than 50,000 people.
On Sunday, news channels broadcast images said to be from Yabroud of army tanks in the town, bodies identified as dead rebels strewn on the streets, and troops taking down rebel flags and putting up the Syrian flag and posters of Assad.
Rebels from Yabroud were reported to have retreated to nearby villages. Some were probably headed for Arsal, a pro-rebel town just inside Lebanon that houses many Syrian refugees and serves as a rear-guard opposition base and medical center.
"Today it has been pretty bad, we received 52 wounded," Dr. Qasem Zain, who heads a field hospital in Arsal, said via telephone. "We think it's going to get worse."
The Yabroud battle is the latest indication of how the government has seized the upper hand in the Syrian war.
Assad's hold on power seemed to be tottering in mid-2012 amid relentless rebel advances. Last September, Syria faced the threat of U.S. aerial bombardment after an alleged poison gas strike killed hundreds outside Damascus. The White House opted not to attack once Assad agreed to give up his chemical arsenal.
Although vast stretches of Syria still remain out of government sway, especially in the north and east, the military has won back strategic areas around the capital and in western Homs province. Fighters from Hezbollah and various pro-government militias have bolstered the thinly stretched military.
The U.S.-backed opposition remains deeply divided and lacks a coherent military strategy. The rebels have no answer to government air power and armored strength.
As loyalist forces have pushed forward, infighting among rebel factions has cost hundreds of lives and distracted from the battle against Assad's troops.
In the last year, a number of previously rebel-held towns and neighborhoods in the Damascus and Homs areas have reverted to government control. Meanwhile, the government says that thousands of former rebels have turned themselves in under various amnesty programs. The military has made gains recently near the northern city of Aleppo, long divided between government and rebel forces.
Damascus, which not long ago was hit with almost daily mortar and car bomb attacks, has been relatively quiet in recent months. Numerous checkpoints and a strong army presence are evident in the capital.
Damage to Yabroud appeared significant but not nearly as extensive as in some other battleground towns, such as Qusair, retaken last year in a joint operation of the military and Hezbollah. Qusair, another former rebel bastion near the Lebanese border, was largely reduced to rubble in the fighting.
Bulos is a special correspondent.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times