BEIRUT — Syrian government troops and Hezbollah militia took control on Sunday of the strategic town of Yabroud near the border with Lebanon, a major blow to rebel forces in eastern Syria who are now effectively cut off from fighters near Damascus as well as rebel-held areas to the north.
With nowhere else to flee, rebels were crossing into Lebanon, raising the prospect of pitched fighting there between rebels and their Lebanese supporters in the town of Arsal on one side and the Lebanese army and fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement on the other. Syrian government aircraft were reported to have struck retreating rebels and refugees along the border.
Syrian state television and Lebanese channels with close ties to Hezbollah, which committed hundreds of fighters to the push against Yabroud, reported the city’s capture, with Syrian television announcing that the operation had “returned security and stability to the town of Yabrud and its surroundings in northern Damascus province.” The report was accompanied by patriotic music and images of Syrian and Hezbollah troops walking around the town.
“This new success... is an important step towards securing the border area with Lebanon, and cutting off the roads and tightening the noose around the remaining terrorist cells in Damascus province,” the Syrian military said.
Yabroud is the largest city in Qalamoun, a mountainous region along the Syria-Lebanon border that once linked rebels fighting in Damascus with pro-rebel safe havens in Lebanon. It had served as a hub for rebel activity against both the government of President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah, with Lebanese authorities blaming militants in the city for manufacturing car bombs that have repeatedly struck pro-Hezbollah neighborhoods in Beirut since last summer.
Because of the Qalamoun’s strategic position linking the pro-rebel Lebanese town of Arsal with the rest of the Syrian battlefield, the government’s months-long campaign has been treated as strategically important by both sides. Hezbollah committed hundreds of its well-trained paramilitaries to the fight while rebels set aside their differences to welcome sizable detachments of al Qaida-linked fighters from the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who have been fighting one another elsewhere in Syria.
The fall of Yabroud follows the government recapture last year of the town of Qusayr and a successful campaign to take rebel-held districts in both Hama and Homs provinces to the north.
A Lebanese military source said the Lebanese army was preparing for an influx of fighters fleeing Yabroud. Arsal is already filled with tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.
Early Sunday morning saw a firefight between an Lebanese army patrol and suspected rebels fleeing the battle but casualties could not be confirmed.
“We were expecting the fall of Yabroud this weekend,” the military official said, asking that his name be withheld because he lacks permission to talk to the foreign news reporters. “We have moved special forces troops and tanks into place. Because of the terrain, we cannot stop the terrorists from entering Arsal but we can try and keep them from entering the rest of Lebanon.”
The official confirmed both a series of air strikes and the clash with the Lebanese army.
“The Syrian air force is hitting areas we know they use to move between Lebanon and Qalamoun and have killed or wounded dozens of [rebels],” he said. “And terrorists did attempt to attack an army patrol. We expect many more attacks like this in the Arsal region now.”
The news that Yabroud had fallen was greeted with relief, the distribution of candies and heavy celebratory gunfire in Beirut’s pro-Hezbollah neighborhoods in the southern suburbs, which have been living under extreme security measures after about dozen suicide bombings targeted the area in recent months.
“People are happy because they think the car bombs will stop hitting us now,” said Abu Ibrahim, a Shiite resident of southern Beirut with close ties to Hezbollah. “They are handing out sweets, shooting in the air and hoping that this means their people and families will stop dying.”
A Hezbollah military commander, who cannot use his real name with reorters for security reasons, said that the “high price” for Yabroud was worth it because the operation will make both Beirut and Shiite villages in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley safer from the radical Islamists of the Nusra Front and ISIS, who consider Shiites to be apostates religiously, and traitors for fighting alongside Assad.
“We left a clear path for them to retreat to Arsal, the strategy has been to cut off that pocket from both Syria and Lebanon,” he said. “Now the Lebanese government needs to make the proper decision and clear Arsal of these gunmen and terrorists.”
But with a very weak Lebanese government starkly divided between supporters and opponents of the rebels, finding a political consensus on action against Arsal will be difficult.
“We know many of Lebanon’s leaders are aligned with these terrorists,” he said, referring to the Sunni political bloc that makes little effort to avoid open support for the rebels. “The army will have to be strong.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero