Yabroud town - a strategic prize for Syria government
- 21 March 2014
- From the section Middle East
With the capture of the town of Yabroud near the border with Lebanon, Syrian government forces made an important territorial gain. Its fall closes off a key supply route for the rebels, but as Paul Wood reports from Beirut, the war for control of Syria grinds on.
A seven-year-old boy called Youssef was being treated for a head wound in a makeshift clinic in the Lebanese border town of Arsal.
"They shelled us with cannon as we were fleeing," he said, talking about the retreat from Yabroud.
The doctor in charge, Qassem Zien, declares for the activist videoing this scene: "We've had dozens of wounded like this, mostly women and children. I ask Hezbollah and Bashar: Are these terrorists?"
Undoubtedly, many fighters were fleeing Yabroud along with the civilians.
An aid worker in Arsal reports being approached by a desperate rebel. Would the aid agency give him safe passage out of Arsal to another part of Lebanon? He explained he was afraid of being caught by Lebanon's Shia Hezbollah militia.
That conversation, if accurate, shows the disarray and, perhaps, the collapse in morale among some rebel fighters after the fall of Yabroud, just over the border from Arsal.
Hezbollah - though Lebanese - have been used as the Syrian government's shock troops in this and other assaults in what is an ongoing offensive.
The fighter must have feared that Hezbollah would continue their operations against the Syria rebels inside Lebanon, trying to capture those who had fled over the border.
The Syrian war has gradually (and some will fear inexorably) crossed the border into Lebanon.
It is manifested in bomb attacks by the Syrian Islamists of the Nusra Front against Hezbollah areas of Beirut - and in the on-off sectarian skirmishing in Tripoli in the north.
It seems, though, that only a handful of the rebel forces fleeing Yabroud made it to Arsal.
Many remain in the mountains, their retreat cut off by the Syrian Army.
'Tightening the noose'
Smugglers in Arsal supplied the weapons and ammunition for rebel groups from Yabroud itself to the outskirts of Damascus, giving them the means to prosecute their guerrilla war.
Now, that resupply seems impossible: another victory for the government's offensive.
The offensive also recaptured the famous old crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, a rebel (and Islamist) base for two years.
Activists say more than a thousand people fled from the village that nestles just below the castle. They walked into northern Lebanon in the dead of night and amid shellfire that caused dozens of casualties.
Before sending in ground troops to Yabroud, the Syrian Army pounded the town for weeks with heavy artillery and air strikes.
Video taken by a cameraman close to the rebels just days before they abandoned the town shows collapsed buildings and rubble spilling into a main street.
Days later, reporters travelling with government troops said they had found the town's Catholic church - one of the world's oldest churches - vandalised.
The crucifix behind the altar was smashed, bibles had been burned - an act of desecration blamed on retreating Islamist fighters.
After capturing Yabroud, the Syrian military said in a statement carried on the official news agency: "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."
Some activists admit that Yabroud's loyalties never truly lay with the revolution. It was a town with many government sympathisers and a significant Christian population that did not want to take sides.
But Yabroud's significance lay mainly in its geographical position.
The rebels once controlled a large swathe of territory along Syria's border with Lebanon. They once moved freely back and forth across that border.
Now they are being squeezed into a smaller and smaller area. They cling to a few villages near Yabroud that might give them a chance of keeping their supply lines across the border open.
The main group involved in the defence of Yabroud was the Islamist Nusra Front, which has pledged its loyalty to al-Qaeda.
In an account published on Twitter, the Nusra brigade's spokesman, Abdallah Azzam Al-Shami, bitterly blamed other rebel groups for the fall of Yabroud, accusing them of cowardice and betrayal.
"Most of the [other] main factions in town fled… They left us and abandoned their positions," he said.
He claimed that the leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the town had met in secret and decided to retreat without offering any resistance to the Syrian Army and to Hezbollah.
"Was Yabroud sold?" he tweeted, implying there had been a corrupt deal. "They found no shame in handing over Yabroud."
The FSA do not accept that version of events, of course, but it is evidence of the bitterness and division among the rebels in the wake of this damaging defeat.
The activists and citizen journalists who used Yabroud as a base for the past years are trying to put on a brave face.
"The fall of Homs or the fall of Yabroud doesn't mean the end of the revolution," said Ahmad al-Homsi, a young activist working to transport casualties across the border to Arsal.
"The Free Syrian Army still control vast pieces of land stretching from Flita to Rankous (villages south of Yabroud on the Syrian-Lebanese border)."
Another activist, Nader Husseini, told the BBC's Arabic TV: "The regime claims to 'liberate' towns but we look at the regime as an occupying force… The revolution still lives in the hearts and souls of the people, a people abandoned by everybody and left to face this regime alone."
Elsewhere in Syria, the rebels are said to be planning new offensives.
They are pushing into parts of Latakia province, emptying Alawite villages loyal to the government and sending people fleeing for the big government-controlled towns.
A new attack on Damascus is said to be fomenting in the southern province of Deraa, where the Americans have reportedly given the rebels new weapons.
So the fall of Yabroud is not the end of the uprising. But in this part of Syria at least - the strategically vital border with Lebanon - it is clear the government is winning.