Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad overran rebel positions in an Armenian border town in northern Syria on Sunday after months of fighting, according to activists and the government.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition, Britain-based watchdog with a network of activists on the ground, reported that fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah as well as special forces units from the Syrian army were able to seize control of the town of Kessab on the Syrian-Turkish border after clashes with Islamist brigades that included the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
Syrian state media confirmed the report, saying pro-government forces "restored security and stability to Kessab," adding that large numbers of armed opponents were killed and their weaponry destroyed. The report said the area was being cleared of land mines.
Pro-government forces and rebel factions have been fighting for control of the country for over three years, plunging Syria into a vicious civil war that has killed more than 160,000 people and destroyed large swaths of the country.
Kessab, a once-tranquil hamlet of 2,500 people, mostly Armenian Christians, was the target last March of a large-scale strike by Syrian guerrillas who surged across the Turkish border to seize the town and establish a presence in the mountainous region of Latakia province, a government stronghold and home to President Assad and his ultra-loyalist Alawite minority sect.
Many Alawite commanders hold key roles in Assad's military and security apparatus. Their disproportionate control of the country's resources fueled much of the resentment in the country's Sunni majority.
The rebel campaign to control Kessab was at the center of the furor, as pro-government media warned of an impending genocide perpetrated by Islamist fighters against the town's Armenian population, while opposition leaders worked hard to dispel rumors of mistreatment. It became a cause célèbre with figures including Kim Kardashian, the Armenian American reality-show star, who exhorted her followers on Twitters to "get this trending" and join the #SaveKessab hashtag campaign.