MAALOULA, Syria: Syrian troops triumphantly swept through some of the last remaining opposition strongholds north of Damascus, including the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, sending rebel fighters fleeing to nearby hills amid an ever-tightening noose.
The near total collapse of rebels along a key supply route that has long funneled weapons to opposition-held districts around Damascus helps strengthen President Bashar Assad’s hand in and around the capital.
The dramatic capture of Maaloula, Sarkha and Jibbeh was the fastest series of army successes against rebels in the Qalamoun region since the government launched an offensive in November in the strategic area, a wedge of mountainous territory between the capital and the Lebanese border.
The string of military achievements there this year by government forces, often boosted by allied Hezbollah fighters, adds another layer of defense for Damascus.
In Maaloula, a historic and scenic Christian enclave set into the rocky hills that has changed hands several times in the war, Syrian soldiers jubilantly hoisted the national flag atop the shattered facade of a perched, landmark hotel where rebels had been holed up for months.
Rebels still hold a few towns and other pockets in Qalamoun. Control of the region means control over the flow of weapons and fighters to the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, from which rebels have been firing mortar bombs into the capital. It is also important because of a highway that links Damascus to the Mediterranean port of Latakia and the coast. “It’s an extremely important region for the security of Damascus,” said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who closely follows the conflict.
“The army will do anything to keep the roads from Damascus to Beirut for themselves, after losing many crossings with Turkey,” Jaber said.
Partly in response to the losses in Qalamoun, rebels launched an offensive in Latakia province last month, capturing the last border crossing point with Turkey that was still under government control as well as several towns. Although the army has been unable to reverse the rebels’ gains in Latakia, it has stalled any further rebel advances.
A military statement said the successive victories by the army were in line with the government’s “determination to win the war against takfiris,” a term for Islamist extremists.
Syria’s state news agency said forces loyal to Assad captured Sarkha early Monday before also sweeping rebels out of Maaloula. Hours later, troops seized the nearby town of Jibbeh.
By the afternoon, only the towns of Asal al-Ward, Hawsh Arab and Jbaadin remained in rebel hands, said the commander who spoke to an Associated Press reporter on a government-led tour of the area. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Maaloula, located some 40 miles northeast of the capital and home to a large Christian population, is an important symbolic prize for the government in its quest to be seen as protector of religious minorities, including Syria’s Christians. Some Maaloula residents still speak a version of Aramaic.
Rebels had taken the town and been driven out of it twice before. This latest time, rebels seized the village in early December.
Those fighters included gunmen from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, who abducted more than a dozen Greek Orthodox nuns from their convent during the fighting. The nuns were released unharmed in March. In exchange, the Syrian government reportedly released dozens of women from prison.
During a government-led tour, the toll of the past few months on Maaloula was clear, including to Christian sites. It was not clear, however, whether the wreckage was intentional or whether the ancient sites were merely caught in the crossfire.
The church bell and cross were missing from the Mar Sarkis convent, while icons of saints, copies of the Bible, papers and glass littered the floors. The convent is located below the hilltop Safir Hotel, which served as one of the main rebel positions in Maaloula for months.
The hotel itself was completely destroyed, with holes gouged through the walls and blackened floors.
Christian clerics hailed the rebels’ ouster from Maaloula with the Greek Catholic patriarch Gregory III Lahham declaring the army’s victory there a symbol of liberation of “every human being and every inch of Syria.”