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In blow to rebels, Syria seizes town

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters captured a strategic town on the Lebanese border Sunday, ousting opposition fighters from their last stronghold in the 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 neighboring Lebanon, where Hezbollah is a major force, suggests the conflict could be felt there. The war already has ignited polarizing sectarian tensions between Lebanon's Sunnis and Shiites.

"It's a good day for Assad," said Fawaz 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."

Gerges warned that the fall of Yabroud will reverberate in Lebanon, "pouring gasoline on sectarian divisions and likely bringing more violence" into the country.

Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij hailed the army's latest triumph while inspecting troops in Yabroud on Sunday.

In blow to rebels, Syria seizes town 03/16/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 17, 2014 12:34am]

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