On the main square of the former rebel bastion of Yabrud, three exhausted Syrian soldiers sit by a sculpture painted in the colours of the revolt savouring their hard-fought victory.
“It was a very difficult battle, possibly the most difficult we have faced,” a soldier who gave his name as Abu Mohammed told AFP between puffs on a water pipe.
He said snipers had made it perilous for troops backed by fighters from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah as they advanced through the streets.
“You see some 100 soldiers walking on this square? Well multiply that number by two, and that will give you the number of snipers who were positioned in the buildings, houses and factories here,” he said.
While soldiers walked around, some firing their weapons in the air to celebrate the victory, the walls of Yabrud were still covered in rebel graffiti.
“We belong to the Islamic nation and Mohammed is our chief. We will only kneel before God,” one slogan read.
Another said: “The (rebel) Free Syrian Army protects you. Take off your shoes, the earth in Yabrud is covered in our blood.”
No civilians could be seen in the town, which had a population of 30,000 before the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, including a Christian minority.
Yabrud was filled instead with Syrian soldiers, pro-government militiamen and Hezbollah fighters, all in different uniforms.
They were already making preparations to push forward on last rebel-held areas in the Qalamoun mountains, strategically located on the Lebanese border.
Some loyalist fighters drove through Yabrud with the Syrian flag tied to the back of their motorbikes, with others riding in civilian cars.
The scars from the battle were still visible around the town centre: electricity cables hung across rooftops and shattered glass covered the pavement.
Gaping holes caused by round of mortar fire pocked the facades of buildings, while air strikes had caved in rooftops around the town.
“The next stages will be Ras al-Maarra, Flita, Rankus and then the border with Lebanon will be hermetically sealed, and no terrorist will be able to cross,” said a commander, using the government’s term for rebels.
– Infighting among rebels –
The capture of Yabrud, according to French researcher and Syria expert Fabrice Balanche, is of vital strategic importance.
“It was the last big town in the Qalamoun mountain area that was in rebel hands, after Deir Attiyeh and Nabuk were recaptured (by the army) in autumn,” Balanche told AFP.
“It is located on the road linking Damascus to Homs, and was a security threat on that axis.”
The battle was also of huge importance to Hezbollah, which says many of the car bombs used to target Shiite areas in Lebanon originated in Yabrud, and were driven across the border via the Lebanese Sunni town of Arsal.
The Syrian commander spoke of a dispute in rebel ranks three days before the fall of Yabrud, between fighters who wanted to withdraw and jihadist allies in Al-Nusra Front who wanted to fight on.
“We killed their main leaders and they were thrown into disarray,” said the commander. “Many rebels were killed, others were captured, and some escaped.”
In the town, the roar of fighter jets could be heard overhead and intermittent explosions in the distance.
Syrian state television said the military continued to target “terrorist groups” fleeing towards Arsal.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, at least six people were killed in air raids, including two children.