A Syrian officer and his men took a breather Tuesday outside a mosque in dusty village of Sahel as they awaited the greenlight to resume their offensive on nearby Yabrud.
The rebel-held town in the Qalamoun mountains lies on the strategic highway linking Damascus to Homs, Syria’s third city. Close to the Lebanese border, it is crucial to rebel supply lines.
President Bashar al-Assad’s army launched an offensive three weeks ago to capture Yabrud. On Monday, the troops entered Sahel, only about two kilometres (just over a mile) away.
“Our morale is high. We feel that the terrorists are confused,” said the officer, using the regime term for rebels fighting to topple Assad.
Surrounded by reporters, including an AFP correspondent on an army-organised tour of the region, he pointed beyond the hilltop village of Sahel to Yabrud.
“We are about to tighten the noose around Yabrud,” he said.
The army, backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah, has been battling with Sunni jihadists of Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, in Qalamoun since December, according to activists and a monitoring group.
“We are awaiting orders to advance on Flita,” he said of the last rebel post before Yabrud.
Another officer said Flita “is the gunmen’s last escape route for Arsal,” across the border in Lebanon, whose residents support the revolt against Assad.
The town has become home to thousands of Syrians who have fled the nearly three-year conflict.
On Monday, Syria’s air force launched two strikes on the outskirts of the frontier town, according to Lebanese security sources, the latest in a string of cross-border raids.
In Sahel, a small hamlet abandoned by its residents, the soldiers flash a V-for-victory sign and wave Syrian flags while other walk about with light weapons or drive past in military vehicles.
Gunfire crackles intermittently in the distance where fighting is apparently taking place.
Suddenly there is a loud blast.
“It is an air raid on specific targets,” said the first officer.
Earlier Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria with the help of activists on the ground, said two army helicopters dropped explosive-packed barrels on Yabrud.
The strikes come a day after at least 15 rebels were killed fighting in the area, said the Britain-based monitor.
Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman says the army does not want to enter Yabrud, but only to “seize the surrounding villages and hills, to completely besiege the town.
The army has used the siege tactic in several towns and cities from the onset of the nearly three-year war that has now killed an estimated 140,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.
The battle for Yabrud is crucial for Hezbollah, which says rebels are using it as gateway to sending car bombs that have caused death and destruction in Lebanon.
Last year Hezbollah acknowledged sending fighters into Syria to support the army.