Sunday, March 16, 2014 | 6:08 p.m.
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.
Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij hailed the army's latest triumph while inspecting troops in Yabroud on Sunday.
"We are moving from one victory to another," al-Freij said in comments carried by state news agency SANA. He said the army troops are now "chasing terrorists and gangs, and soon, all their hideouts will be destroyed." Syrian officials routinely refer to rebels as terrorists.
The fall of Yabroud immediately emboldened government forces to attack nearby rebel-held towns, pressing forward in what has been nearly a yearlong advance against opposition fighters.
Government warplanes chased the fleeing rebels into Lebanon, state media said, firing two rockets in the outskirts of the border town of Arsal, a logistical base for the Syrian rebels. The surrounding fields and hills have serve as shelter for tens of thousands of refugees.
Syrian helicopters dropped bombs on villages outside Yabroud, said the deputy mayor of Arsal, Ahmad Fliti, and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The bombing killed at least six people, including two children, in the nearby village of Muarat, they said.
Syrian aircraft also fired at least four rockets near Arsal's barren hills targeting rebels, Lebanon's state-run news agency reported. The NNA said Lebanese soldiers also detained fleeing rebels who tried enter the country with their weapons, and opened fire on a vehicle whose driver did not stop at an army checkpoint.
The sectarian tones of Syria's war have triggered violence in Lebanon, which shares a similar patchwork of minorities.
The chaotic mix of rebels fighting Assad forces are overwhelmingly Sunni, while Syria's minorities, including Christians, Shiites and Alawites, largely have sided with the government or remained neutral. Assad himself is part of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
In Beirut, Hezbollah supporters celebrated Yabroud's fall with celebratory gunfire in Shiite-dominated areas. Youths on motorbikes waving Hezbollah's yellow flag noisily roared through the city's upscale central district.
Near the Syrian border, however, an extremist Sunni group in Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, claimed responsibility for firing rockets at a Shiite-dominated town near Arsal, local media reported.
One man was killed in the town of Nabi Sheet, while other rockets landed in the nearby town of Labweh on Saturday, the NNA said.
In retaliation, Shiite gunmen surrounded Arsal, resident Mohammed Ezzidine said. He said the gunmen prevented dozens of people from entering the town.
The Syrian war also has exacerbated tensions in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, which date back to Lebanon's own 1975-1990 civil war. Two impoverished neighborhoods there belonging to rival sects have had dozens of clashes. The fighting has left 12 people dead in Tripoli since Thursday, the NNA said. The agency said the latest fatality from the fighting was a soldier.
Late Sunday, car bomb killed at least two people in the town of Nabi Othman, about 30 kilometers north of Baalbek, Lebanese security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. They said the explosion caused panic and massive destruction in the Hezbollah stronghold, which has a sizable Christian population in addition to Shiites.
Hezbollah-owned Al Manar TV said a suicide bomber detonated the car as he was chased on the road leading into town.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.