BEIRUT — Syrian government troops supported by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah took control of a strategic crossroads Monday in far western Syria and reopened the country’s main highway to the coast, according to state-run Syrian media and rebel activists.
The capture of the town of Nabek from rebels trying to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad is considered critical to transporting the remnants of Syria’s chemical weapons stores out of the country for destruction.
Syrian state television claimed the capture happened on Sunday, but Assad-sympathetic news outlets in neighboring Lebanon said that the town was brought completely under control after the eastern section was captured on Monday.
An otherwise nondescript village in the far northwestern Damascus suburbs, Nabek sits along the main highway connecting Damascus to the Mediterranean port of Tartus, where international experts have said Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles will need to be loaded onto ships for disposal.
The head of the global chemical weapons watchdog group said Monday that fighting could delay the transfer of the most dangerous chemical weapons – scheduled for destruction by Dec. 31 – but that their destruction would meet the final deadline of the middle of 2014.
“In view of the circumstances in this country, it will be quite difficult to meet this timeline,” Ahmet Uzumcu, in Oslo to accept the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize on Tuesday, told a news conference. “There are very demanding timelines that we want to fulfill and I’m confident that the deadline of end of June next year (to destroy the weapons) will be met.”
The capture of Nabek came three weeks into an operation mounted by Syrian army troops, members of the National Defense Force, a militia of regime loyalists, and Hezbollah’s Shiite fighters to clear rebels from the Qalamoun region along Syria’s mountainous border with Lebanon. Government forces, backed by heavy air and artillery bombardment, have driven rebels from most of the area, with the exception of the rebel-held town of Yabrud.
Rebel forces were expected to counterattack, though their ability to launch a major offensive was expected to be hampered by what forecasters say may be the most powerful winter storm to hit the region in a decade, bringing the first significant snowfall to the rugged mountain area this season. Temperatures are expected to remain below freezing for much the week.
The al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front has been given responsibility for coordinating rebel forces in Qalamoun, though rebel commanders say Nusra and fighters from another al Qaida affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, do not make up the majority of the rebels.
“(The rebels) have been pushed back from Nabek,” said Abu Omar al Hueijeri, a Lebanese activist and rebel fighter from the nearby Lebanese city of Arsal. “They will attempt a counterattack tomorrow if they can in the storm.”
Hueijeri said rebels forces had been unable to resist the combination of aerial bombardment and foreign reinforcements, which included Iranian soldiers. “The regime air power with Hezbollah and Iranian troops have made it very difficult to hold the towns in the face of such death,” Hueijeri said.
Local aid groups in Lebanon called for extra supplies and assistance for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in eastern Lebanon as the war passed its 1,000th day.
Both Hezbollah and rebel military fighters said they expect the next, and final, phase of the fight for Qalamoun to center on Yabrud, the largest population center remaining in rebel hands along the border with Lebanon. Its fall would break a major rebel supply line between Lebanon’s Arsal, which is fiercely loyal to the rebels, and the contested suburbs of Damascus. Such a break would be catastrophic for the rebels.
“If Yabrud falls we will be cut off from the battle,” Hueijeri said.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero