December 4, 2013
By Alex Simon and Mohammed Rabie
AMMAN: Syrian government and Hezbollah forces have seized the western quarter of Nabek after two weeks of shelling and air raids, marking the latest stage in the government’s town-by-town campaign to conquer the largely rebel-controlled Qalamoun mountain range.
The battle follows regime victories in the towns of Deir Attiyeh and Qara, roughly 10 and 15 km north of Nabek, respectively, along a key segment of the Damascus-Homs international highway. Rebels have controlled this stretch of road for the last year, but a string of regime bases throughout Qalamoun has provided government troops the deterrent capacity to ensure that the route from Damascus to Homs—and, by extension, to Alawite strongholds along the Mediterranean coast—remained open.
The Qalamoun towns of Qara, Deir Attiyeh, Nabek, and Yabroud lie along a 25 km
stretch of the Damascus-Homs international highway.
“The highway is the regime’s one vital artery,” said Amer, a 23-year-old activist and spokesman for the Qalamoun Media Center, speaking to Syria Direct from outside Yabroud. “Previously, if the FSA fired one bullet toward the highway, the regime would cut food supplies to the villages along the highway for about ten days.”
The segment extends roughly 25 km south from Qara through the towns of Deir Attiyeh, Nabek, and finally Yabroud, some 75 km north of the capital. Regime and Hezbollah forces launched a fierce campaign to wrest control of this section of the highway in mid-November, seizing the rebel-held town of Qara and forcing opposition fighters to flee south to Deir Attiyeh and Nabek.
Last week, government forces reasserted their control of Deir Attiyeh, a town of 10,000 that the regime had controlled since the start of the uprising, until rebel fighters briefly seized the initiative following their expulsion from Qara.
The regime’s victory in Deir Attiyeh pushed Nabek—which has been under rebel control for roughly a year—to the forefront in the struggle for Qalamoun. The town, which at 45,000 residents is Qalamoun’s largest, has faced aerial bombardment for two weeks and a government blockade for one, and in recent days has fallen partially under regime control.
“Regime forces were able to take control of Nabek’s western quarter along the mountains bordering Lebanon,” said Amer. “They tried to storm the city from the north, from Deir Attiyeh, but the FSA repelled them."
Syria’s pro-regime media amplified the gains: “The Syrian army says it is within hours from fully securing and controlling the town of Nabek,” reported the Iranian PressTV channel on Tuesday. “Once the Syrian army achieves this, it means the army is one step closer to fully securing the highway, which has been cut off now for more than 14 days.”
Meanwhile, Amer said that government troops continued to besiege the town, forbidding the entry of all food products. “Bakeries are shut down for the fourth consecutive day because of the suffocating blockade that the regime is imposing.”
A rebel defeat, should it occur, would make Nabek the third of four towns on this stretch of highway to come under government control since regime and Hezbollah forces began pushing south from Qara on November 19.
The one remaining holdout would be Yabroud, a town with a mixed Sunni Muslim and Christian population that lies adjacent to the highway roughly 10 km southwest of Nabek and where rebels have established makeshift munitions factories.
“After Nabek there’s only Yabroud, and then the highway will be fully under the regime’s control,” said Amer.
Yabroud has lately made headlines as the place where hard-line Islamist fighters are believed to have transferred 12 nuns whom they abducted from the ancient Christian village of Maaloula earlier this week.
Yabroud remains relatively calm for the time being, but rebels know that will change if the regime continues its push south from Nabek to consolidate control of the highway.
“Yabroud is the revolutionaries’ main foothold in Qalamoun,” said Amer.
“If the FSA loses Yabroud, I can say that Qalamoun has slipped from our hands.”