Fighters loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad captured the town of Qara in the far west of the country this week, forcing thousands of residents to flee into neighboring Lebanon.
Qara straddles the only highway that connects the capital Damascus with the city of Homs, a hotbed of rebel activity since the uprising against Assad began more than two years ago.
The Islamist opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra, which was designed a terrorist organization by the United States last year, admitted that it had withdrawn from the area.
The Syrian army, supported by members of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, launched its offensive on Friday, carrying out attacks with jets and helicopter gunships against the rebels in Qara. Grounds forces and tanks then reportedly forced them to retreat. State media claimed on Tuesday that troops were “in full control of Qara after wiping out all terrorist units in it.”
Opposition fighters had held Qara for more than a year. It served as an important hub for the smuggling of weapons from Lebanon to the front.
Rebel activity on the western highways also inhibited the regime’s ability to supply its operations in the north where the opposition still controls large areas.
With the rebels defeated at Qara, the regime appears to have succeeded in retaking control of the highway — and a critical line of communication.
From Homs, highways run north to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial capital, and into the Alawite homeland of Assad’s tribe, an area that has largely escaped fighting throughout the civil war. The northwestern provinces are the main recruiting ground for the president’s core praetorian guard units who have proved to be among the most effective in combatting the rebellion.
Reports of ethnic cleansing earlier surfaced from towns in the an-Nusayriyah Mountains, raising suspicion that the regime was carving out a homogenous enclave for the Alawites, while some of the heaviest fighting this year has taken place in and around the city of Qusayr, strategically situated north of Qara on the same Damascus-Homs highway.