December 10, 2013
By Alex Simon
AMMAN: Syrian government and allied forces shelled the rebel-controlled town of Yabroud on Tuesday, one day after capturing the nearby city of Nabek, in an attempt to vanquish the last rebel stronghold along a key stretch of the Damascus-Homs international highway in the Qalamoun mountain range.
“Government forces pounded the outskirts of Yabroud and the farmland outside of Nabek this morning, as the regime claimed control of Nabek after more than 10 days of bombardment and fighting,” reported the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Tuesday.
Yabroud, a mixed Sunni Muslim and Christian town some 75 km north of Damascus, is the site where opposition fighters are believed to be holding a group of roughly a dozen nuns taken from the ancient Christian town of Maaloula last Tuesday, after the town was overrun by fighters from the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat a-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS).
The nuns appeared Friday in a video broadcast by Al Jazeera, in which they insisted they had been “rescued,” not kidnapped by the rebels.
It remains to be seen how their suspected location in Yabroud could influence a regime push for the town; the Syrian government and its allied forces of Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias spent two weeks besieging Nabek, encircling and then bombarding the town. They are tactics also used in Qara and Deir Attiyeh just days before.
The rebel-held town of Yabroud in October. Photo courtesy of Twitter user Al_7aleem.
Opposition activists charge that the government campaign in Nabek was marked by widespread looting and punctuated by a string of gruesome atrocities, including the slaying of seven children on Sunday
The Iraqi Thu al-Fiqar forces “killed more than seven children in front of their families in Nabek, then sent the dead bodies in a car to Yabroud,” said Taim, a member of the FSA’s Revolutionary Command Council in Qalamoun.
The report could not be independently verified, but it along with horrific photographs of dead children have been widely circulated within opposition circles on social media, accompanied on Twitter by the Arabic hashtag “The massacre of the children of Nabek.”
“Nabek was exposed to a fourth consecutive massacre today, this one carried out by the Iraqi Thu al-Fiqar Brigade, which slaughtered seven children and sent their corpses by car to Yabroud,” reported the pro-opposition outlet Yabroud Newsbreak on Sunday.
If confirmed, the decision to send the children’s corpses to Yabroud may be viewed as a grisly warning of the battle to come. Yabroud now represents the last opposition foothold along a strategically vital stretch of the road connecting the Syrian capital with Homs and, further north, Alawite strongholds along the Mediterranean coast.
“The highway is the regime’s one vital artery,” said Amer, a 23-year-old spokesman for the Qalamoun Media Center.
Rebel fighters had closed down the road for more than 20 days, sparking a fuel shortage in the capital. The shutdown also threatened to impede the transportation of hundreds of tons of toxic chemicals from Damascus to the coast, where they will be loaded on to ships for destruction at sea or at commercial facilities abroad as part of a deal between the Syrian government and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The regime’s push for the highway began roughly three weeks ago, with government and Hezbollah fighters conquering the rebel-held town of Qara—roughly 90 km north of Damascus and 25 km north of Yabroud—before pushing south along the highway through Deir Attiyeh and now Nabek.
The pro-regime al-Watan daily claimed Monday that government forces had successfully captured the highway, and that it was “expected to reopen shortly, pending military considerations.”
The loss of the highway would be a major blow for rebels, who rely on the area for key supply routes between the Damascus suburbs and Sunni towns across the border with Lebanon. Yabroud in particular has been a major opposition base for more than a year, with rebel fighters setting up makeshift munitions factories in the town.
“Yabroud is the rebels’ main stronghold in Qalamoun,” said Amer the Qalamoun Media Center spokesman.
“If the FSA loses Yabroud, I can say that Qalamoun has slipped from our hands.”
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