Syrian forces regained control over a strategic suburb of the capital on Thursday as rebels under heavy bombardment said they were forced to withdraw.
The fall of Mleiha, the Damascus suburb that the rebels had controlled for nearly two years, is a major setback for the beleaguered opposition, which has seen its hold over much of the country weaken over the past year.
With Mleiha in government hands, other rebel strongholds in the Ghouta Sharqia area east of the capital are even more vulnerable to advances by military forces.
Hundreds of rebels in Mleiha were forced to pull out after coming under intense air and mortar bombardment by government forces and Hezbollah militants, said Abu Yazan, a media activist who had been in the town. Other rebel sources said opposition fighters remained in some parts of Mleiha.
“Occupying Mleiha is the beginning phase of occupying the towns inside the besieged Ghouta,” said Abdurrahman, a spokesman with the Islam Army, one of the largest rebel groups in Damascus.
“He will attack piece by piece,” Abdurrahman added, referring to the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The spokesman goes by his first name only for security reasons.
The Ghouta, which has been under government siege for more than a year, was attacked last August with chemical weapons, killing around 1,400 people. The two sides in the conflict blamed each other for the assault, with the U.S. and other Western allies pinning it on Assad’s forces.
Mleiha is only the latest victory for the regime, which since late last year has gradually retaken territory from the opposition rebels, some through military force aided by an outmatched air power and others through truces after months of dwindling resources and starvation.
State media reported that rebels in Mleiha used it as a base to carry out attacks on civilians. The town lies next to the pro-government and mostly minority suburb of Jaramana, which has come under regular mortar attack.
The army’s general command told state media that with Mleiha now under government control, troops have tightened the noose around the Ghouta Sharqia “and established a springboard from which these terrorists can be eliminated completely.”
The government routinely describes the opposition as terrorists.