BEIRUT – With rebels fleeing into neighboring Lebanon, Syrian government troops and Hezbollah fighters captured a strategic town near the frontier Sunday, ousting opposition fighters from their last stronghold in the vital border area.
Yabroud was a major smuggling hub for the rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad. The town’s fall is the latest in a string of strategic gains by Assad’s forces that have consolidated authority in the past months in Syria’s major cities, including the capital, Damascus.
Militants from Lebanon’s Shiite group Hezbollah have been instrumental to Assad’s success on the battlefield, and support from the Iranian-backed fighters appears to have tipped the balance into the government’s favor in Yabroud. However, the fact that opposition fighters fled into Lebanon, where Hezbollah is a major force, suggests the conflict could bleed further into Syria’s neighbor. The civil war already has ignited polarizing sectarian tensions between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites.
“It’s a good day for Assad,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “He has not only survived the past three years, but his army is intact and on a rebound, with his allies Hezbollah firmly behind him.”
However, Gerges warned the fall of Yabroud will reverberate in neighboring Lebanon, “pouring gasoline on sectarian divisions and likely bring more violence” into the country.
Outgunned by Assad’s army and Hezbollah, rebels abandoned their positions on the hills surrounding Yabroud overnight Sunday, collapsing the fighter ranks inside the town and allowing government forces to move in from the east shortly after dawn, a spokesman for the rebel coalition and the Syrian army said.
Yabroud was an important supply line for rebels into Lebanon. The town overlooks an important cross-country highway from Damascus to the central city of Homs.
“There’s no doubt Yabroud had big strategic importance,” said Capt. Islam Alloush, a spokesman of the Islamic Front, a rebel coalition who had fought in Yabroud but were now streaming into Lebanon. The biggest immediate loss, Alloush said, would be that rebels now had no way of supplying fighters outside of Damascus, where Syrian forces have surrounded a series of opposition-held areas, denying them food, power and clean water.