MAALOULA, Syria (AP) ― Syrian troops triumphantly swept through some of the last remaining opposition strongholds north of Damascus, including a much-coveted ancient Christian hamlet, 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 ahead of presidential elections during which he intends to run for a third term.
The dramatic capture of Sarkha, Maaloula 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 Christian enclave set into the rocky hills that has changed hands several times in the war, Syrian soldiers jubilantly hoisted the Syrian flag atop the shattered facade of a perched, landmark hotel where rebels had been holed up for months.
In a sign of the persistent dangers, three members of a television crew working with the Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar TV were killed when their car came under a hail of bullets in the town. The three had been filming in the area when the two-car convoy they were traveling in came under fire.
Al-Manar identified the three as reporter Hamza al-Haj Hassan, technician Halim Allaw and cameraman Mohammed Mantash. Two of their colleagues were also wounded, it said. The station’s director general, Ibrahim Farhat, said it was not clear whether the crew was specifically targeted.
The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is a staunch ally of Assad, despised by the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple him. Fighters from the group have traveled to Syria and have been instrumental in helping Syrian troops secure areas around the capital.
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 Ghouta, a sprawling opposition area east of Damascus from which rebels have been firing mortars into the capital. It is also important because of a highway that links Damascus to the Mediterranean port of Latakia and the coast, the heartland of the Alawite sect that Assad and his family belong to.
“It’s an extremely important region for the security of Damascus,” said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who closely follows the Syrian conflict.
“The army will do anything to keep the roads from Damascus to Beirut for themselves, after losing many crossings with Turkey,” Jaber said.
Syrian rebels launched an offensive in Latakia province last month, partly in response to the losses in Qalamoun, 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 managed to stall any further rebel advances.
The army has focused its strategy on areas around Damascus, seat of Assad’s power, particularly ahead of presidential elections scheduled to be held by summer. Assad appears poised to seek reelection, even as the Syrian conflict rampages into its fourth year with large parts of the country either in ruins or under opposition control and more than 150,000 people killed.
A Syria military statement issued Monday said the successive victories by the Syrian army were in line with the Syrian government’s “determination to win the war against takfiris,” a term for Islamic 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 Monday 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.
A pro-rebel activist in Qalamoun who uses the name Amer confirmed the military had taken the communities. He spoke on condition his full name not be used for fear of retaliation.
Maaloula, located some 60 kilometers northeast of the capital and home to a large Christian population, serves as 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, the language of biblical times believed to have been used by Jesus.
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-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, who abducted more than a dozen Greek Orthodox nuns from their convent during the fighting, fueling fears that hard-line Muslims were targeting Christians. The nuns were released unharmed in March. In exchange, the Syrian government reportedly released dozens of women from prison.
During a government-led tour of the village Monday, the toll of the past few months on Maaloula was clear, including to Christian sites. It was not clear, however, whether the wreckage to Christian buildings 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. Syrian soldiers hoisted the national flag atop the shattered building. Inside, children’s toys, debris and electricity cables were strewn about the rubble.
Christian clerics hailed the rebels’ ouster from Maaloula with the patriarch of the Greek Catholic church Gregory III Laham declaring the army’s victory there as a symbol of liberation of “every human being and every inch of Syria.”